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Digital in policy making: bringing it all together

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Capability, Engagement

At BIS we've been working hard on applying digital to policy making projects, with some success.

Until now, we have never really asked policy teams, in a coordinated way, what the issues are that prevent widespread adoption of digital, and how we as a department can get better at it - and why.

Beccy, Mike, Marilyn and I have run the first of a regular policy working group made up of a broad cross section of policy areas, from trade to consumer, science to regulation (this is BIS, after all), as well as representatives from IT and HR.

We are hoping this 22-strong group will help test ideas, help form the agenda for the next stage in our digital strategy, and give us another way in to different teams around the department.

Suggested principles

The first session started with some suggested principles, to see if we had a common understanding of digital in the policy making process. This is an ongoing agenda item, to see how people's views might change, challenge those of the digital team and maybe set out a few parameters for this work. Here is the list, for participants to update as they see fit.

The suggested principles, so far:

1. The web gives us access to existing data from our audiences about the policy and services BIS and partner organisations are responsible for. We should be using this data to make better policy.

2. Digital is about listening to what people are saying or doing online, first and foremost. Engagement comes later.

3. Digital is way more than social media: website statistics, transactional data and discussion forums all constitute forms of digital that can play a role in policy making.

4. Digital is also a way of working more effectively; collating and sharing information.

5. Technology helps us do more online, but we only need the basics to apply digital approaches in policy making. Waiting for new IT need not be a blocker!


Self assessment

We asked the group to assess their own digital experience and skills, to see how people currently understood the role of digital, and their own levels of confidence. We asked them to stand in one of 3 spaces around the room:

A - I don’t do anything online, or I might have a personal online profile on one or more websites. I use this to keep an eye on what’s going on online. Some of my team use tools like Yammer to share information.

B - I have participated in conversations online, related to my policy area. I have used data about my policy to improve the way it is presented or delivered online.

C - I regularly talk about my work online, seek feedback and participate in conversations. The delivery of my policy is part of a continuous loop of feedback and improvement.

The aim of this is not to embarrass anyone, but to make sure the group starts to form a collective view on what good application of digital might look like. While the majority of the group tended towards A, we had some people, who had been involved in previous projects, in B and C. Some useful feedback from the group is that some felt they were in a B+ group - they had been involved in one project in the past, but don't necessarily apply digital on a regular basis.

Scenarios and feedback

We then divided into 2 groups and each were given a hypothetical scenario, based on a fairly typical set of circumstances. The idea here was for us as facilitators to keep quiet and get as much genuine reaction from the participants as possible. We were not there to guide anyone towards a solution, or try and change perceptions (at this stage).

Scenario 1

Although people are registering Intellectual Property (IP) in record numbers, and media are celebrating a new age of innovation, data from the web shows that a large number of people are starting the IP registration process, but failing to complete it.

Data from the website and conversations on social media offers a variety of reasons, ranging from disagreement about some of the current principles surrounding IP, to user experience of the website.

Would you tackle this, and how?

Scenario 2

A report has been published, and widely shared online, saying that businesses are generally unaware of the range of support for businesses on offer from government.

One or 2 blog posts have been written about this report, beneath which are some comments from business owners on the relative merits of different schemes, and their experiences.

What might you do with this information?

The group then came back together to discuss their reactions and ideas. There was a wide variety of challenges and ideas, ranging from 'am I allowed to respond to these types of scenarios', to thoughts on guidance to help construct responses and better insight into user needs.


I'm not going to list every single conversation here, but these are the themes that came out:

1. We still need to be convinced of the value of engaging online. When is it worth doing? How can a blog be as important as mainstream media or a stakeholder report?

2. How can we apply digital to policy that's already in place, as opposed to something that has a consultation?

3. What are the implications of public engagement for FOI? Does online engagement lead to greater scrutiny and more FOI requests?

4. Are we allowed to engage online?

5. How does this fit with our day jobs and can it improve ways of working?


We want to make sure this group is more than a talking shop. Everyone agreed to take away a practical action, the experience of which they can report back next time.

Action: think of a live policy issue and how digital might be applied.

Action 2 (for the really keen members): find an example of an online conversation that's relevant to your policy area.

What next?

We are due another meeting in less than a month's time. It is crucial to keep up the momentum.

We will be discussing the results of people's actions, above, and getting to grips with at least one of the 5 themes.

In the interests of embedding a bit of digital as we go along, we won't be issuing minutes. Participants (or anyone else for that matter) can find summaries on this blog, feed back via the comments below, or as part of a wider open policy making Yammer group.

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  1. Comment by Jo Kaczmarek posted on

    Great write up Tim! I personally found the session really engaging, and the scenario my group explored was really thought provoking. I have been sharing the example with colleagues and asking their opinions ever since!

    Two thoughts from me:

    While it is important that we as a Department increase our digital capability, I also think a key 'principle' should be that digital not be pursued as a total replacement for more traditional methods. From my experience it is of most benefit to use digital tools where they add real value and compliment a programme of work - rather than be used because we feel we ought to.

    Secondly, I wonder how much our behaviour changes when we bring 'digital' into the mix? For example in scenario B, if the comments had come to the Department by letter rather than on a blog, would our inclination or duty to respond be any different? I wonder whether it is because it is online, or received by digital means, that we could become apprehensive?

    • Replies to Jo Kaczmarek>

      Comment by Tim Lloyd posted on

      Hi Jo - glad you found the session useful and thanks for your contributions so far.
      I think you make two really good points. I agree that digital is nothing like a replacement for traditional methods - good old face-to-face discussion is always best. Sometimes though, I wonder if the people we meet face-to-face tend to be the 'usual suspects' rather than those who are genuinely representative and influential. This is where I think digital can help.
      The letter versus blog post idea is an excellent one to explore. The Department has processes for dealing with correspondence, or content in mainstream media, but open letters on blogs, comments on social media etc. fall between the gap. We'd respond to something that arrives in the post - why not when it is published online?

  2. Comment by Marilyn Booth posted on

    Hi Jo

    That's a great way of thinking about how we look at what comes into the Department. There's definitely a well-ingrained traditional system in place for dealing with written cases and I guess we do need to get to a similar level in terms of respecting evidence that comes to us in different ways.


  3. Comment by G Morris posted on

    Interesting, I smell fear.

    • Replies to G Morris>

      Comment by Tim Lloyd posted on

      I think you're right, but it's understandable. People who have been in the civil service 10+ years tell me they still recall their induction, in which they were told not to talk about work outside of the office. The new civil service code changes all this, but is clearly taking a lot longer to make itself felt.

  4. Comment by G Morris posted on

    Civil Servants have always had to show care in any discussions with people. Government suggests it's staff will keep up with digital developments and those making progress with the public.

  5. Comment by jim downie posted on

    Great stuff. Looking to do similar thing with dwp policy teams in the digital academy. Clear description above but if any more hints and tips grateful for sight. J

    • Replies to jim downie>

      Comment by Tim Lloyd posted on

      Hi Jim - getting people to self select where they are on a digital spectrum is really important, and helps identify where the gaps are.
      A task based approach to each meeting has meant that, so far, there has been energy, and an unwritten rule that no-one can get away with simply turning up!


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