The open policy challenge – is Whitehall willing to admit it doesn't know it all?

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez September 28, 2015
For decades Whitehall has been relying on a few people 'in the know' to form and create policy. How can we change this in a digitally-enabled, networked economy? And if we can, will the institution accept the change?


The opposition party in the UK government, the Labour party, has made a couple of announcements of late that have got me thinking about policy making in this country. In particular, how digital technologies, a networked economy and a platform-enabled government could be used to better create policy that is informed and representative of the people's needs.

Firstly, Labour's new leader Jeremy Corbyn has said that he would like to change how policy is created and let members of the party have more of a say in future policy direction. Secondly, whilst not directly related to policy, Corbyn and his team used crowdsourcing/digital techniques to form the basis for questions during his first Prime Minister's Questions.

It appears that Labour is wanting to become a party that is more open. A party that uses digital and open policy making to represent the views of the people (or its members at the very least).

However, if you Google 'How is policy formed in the UK?' - you quickly get an idea of how complicated and difficult this area is. To find a lay definition of the process involved in policy making in the UK government is near impossible. Which comes to the crux of the problem when we start to think about open policy making through the use of digital technologies.

How can government engage a broader spectrum of people, include a broader spectrum of evidence and develop a broader platform for policy making, when it is currently such a prohibitive process?

Or perhaps a more pertinent question should be: does it even want to?

At present, despite the fact that we live in a democratic country, policy making is more often than not driven by personalities. Ministers are responsible for their departments and their policy agendas. As a result, a Minister, who may well have a biased agenda based on past experience and political ideology, who often receives advice and evidence from hand-picked people and organisations, can lay out a policy that affects millions of people.

It's a triangular democratic process – a few at the top make decisions, often in private with no transparency as to how those decisions were reached, for many people at the bottom.

That's true whatever your political leaning. That's how policy has been formed for decades. And that's not to say that policy making hasn't got better. There is a whole policy community that works to put pressure on MPs and Ministers, which in theory are meant to guide policy direction.

However, more often than not, in my opinion, important policies are created off the back of media headlines, political sway and personal opinions. A very interesting research paper published in Sciencewise, written by Simon Burrall, Tim Hughes and Jack Stilgoe, sums up nicely the 'default position' for closed policy making (what I see as traditional policy making). They write:

The default position of this model, at every stage of the policy process, is insularity and secrecy, both in terms of transparency and participation. Closed policy-making prevents those on the outside from knowing, among other things, what policy options are being formulated, whom policy is being influenced by and how, what evidence is being used (or ignored) in policy and why, what policy advice decision makers are receiving, and what impact a policy has.

At the same time, input into the policy-making process, from problem identification, through the formulation of policy, the decision making process and implementation, to the evaluation of a policy, is typically restricted to as small a group of people with as limited a scope as possible.

Can we change this?

Well, things have started to change already. The government has made a commitment to things like open data, which can help better inform policy making, and has even created an Open Policy Lab, which has published some fascinating literature on their research and developments.

However, it's still very much a 'side project'. Some may even say a 'token project'.

So what does open policy making look like? Well, that's still very much up for debate. No-one has a clear answer. My (working) definition is something along the lines of:

Open policy making uses both online and offline interaction, to collect both quantitative and qualitative evidence, that is sourced from a variety of different stakeholders, that come from a variety of different backgrounds, which is peer-reviewed and analysed to form a number of policy outcomes that can be tried and tested using digital technologies.

Bit wordy, but I'm working on it. Essentially I like the idea that policy can be created separate from any political ideology and is based on diverse ideas and evidence from a number of different stakeholders. I believe that policy should be based on verifiable quantitative data where it is available, as well as take into account the views of people 'on the ground'. I don't think it should be a one-person agenda driven from the top. And I think there could be a number of different outcomes, which could be competing, that could be tried and tested using digital technologies (government-as-a-platform).

Why do we have to spend years developing a broad policy that is based on the ideas of a few that we are then lumped with for a few years, regardless of whether or not it works in practice?

Some techniques that could be considered for open policy making include the following (please note that whilst I think the majority will use digital technologies for these, I also think that offline opportunities should be made available. Otherwise we are again selecting a certain group of people to create policy, which goes against the idea of open policy making):

  • Crowdsourcing – politicians often complain that there is a lack of engagement from the public in the political system, but in reality this actually suits the current political stakeholders very well. No-one likes change. However, one form of engagement could be to crowdsource ideas or opinions to analyse and help form policy. Can you imagine being able to get feedback from the population on an idea the same day that you actually have the idea? Crowdsourcing and the internet makes that possible.
  • Peer-to-peer reviews – this is something that is common on e-commerce platforms and online forums, but isn't something that I've seen much discussed in the area of open policy making. One way to add weight to ideas that are crowdsourced is to put those ideas into an environment that allows people to rank them. Not a perfect system, as it requires all views to be laid out and for all stakeholders to be looking at all the different views to make a judgement. But when collecting evidence it could help thin out some of the noise.
  • Identify key stakeholders – is it right that policy makers are only listening to stakeholders that are operating in that policy-making circle? How often do you think a policy is formed with the voice of the community it impacts given equal weighting to everything else? Digital technologies make it a hell of a lot easier to find those influential community voices. Working with those voices and influencers could even limit backlashes to changes in policy.
  • Looking at existing online conversations – policy makers shouldn't be sitting in their bubble looking at responses and evidence that they've collected from people and organisations that are aware of the process. Social networks allow us to go out there and find different arguments that are already taking place on the web. Of course a healthy dose of cynicism is required when it comes to social postings, but they shouldn't be ignored.
  • Multi-channel approach to communication – part of the problem with policy making is that understanding a policy usually requires sifting through a lengthy Whitehall document that could be hundreds of pages long. Even then you might not be any more knowledgable on the matter. Why are we not making more use of social channels? Videos on YouTube? Workshops? All of these things could be used to present conflicting evidence or policy decisions in a way that speaks to more people.
  • Ethnography – Or more simply put, the 'human response'. Looking at numbers and data and documents is all well and good, but there should also be ways to communicate how people 'feel' about a policy. Obviously a lot of this will be biased and based on experience, but all that is important too. Again, in person and digital channels should be considered.


Now, having said all this, it's important to note that open policy making doesn't come without its challenges and/or its negative points. For instance, whilst the idea of open policy making sounds fundamentally more democratic than the situation we are in now, there is something to be said for picking a government and then letting Ministers get on with it for four years. Change is clear cut and things happen.

There is an argument for that, which shouldn't be ignored. It's not an argument I believe in, but people will make it and it should be listened to. I would argue, however, that it's better to have informed decision making that allows for a number of competing policies to be formed, which can be regularly tried and tested.

Equally, how do you weigh up 'soft' and 'hard' evidence? Cold hard facts don't always reflect what is happening

in society. The example I like to use is that we are regularly told that more immigration is good for our economy and British society. And yet, there are plenty of people out there willing to actively protest against the idea. Now, I'm all for more immigration. But does that mean I should ignore the views of those who find it difficult? Of course not. The point is, how do we weigh up what is 'right' and what is 'wrong' evidence? Trialling and testing of policy is all well and good, but how do you do it for something as fundamental as immigration? I have no idea and I welcome thoughts and ideas.

I also am struggling to understand how open policy making would work within a defined 'system'. There are so many components and mechanisms in play, that it's quite hard to understand how this would work in practice. Croatia has rolled out an e-consultation platform to the public. Is something this 'dedicated' the right route, or should a public body be set up that operates and analyses a number of channels? Again, thoughts are welcome.

Bias is also a problem. No matter how open you are and how much you take into account, bias will always play a role. When is that okay and how do you work with that? It needs consideration too.

My take

I could probably ramble on for another 2,000 words, but this seems like a sensible place to stop for the time being. But this is an area that needs more attention, as it fundamentally speaks to how our government operates and how we as citizens interact with that government in the 21st century. So many other areas in life and business suggest that being more open delivers better results. The same, in my view, is bound to be true of policy making.

However, the big question is: is Whitehall willing to make that change? There are plenty of people that will have an interest in keeping the status quo in place. Openness and transparency are still completely lacking in Whitehall, no matter what any civil servant or official says. It will require a complete cultural shift and I for one am doubtful that this will happen anytime soon – no matter what the public appetite for change is.