A hot topic at a recent get together of the BIS policy profession was the opportunities and challenges of policy making in a digital world.
The opportunities were clear – for example real time information on how policies were actually working; and the ability to engage with a much wider audience than before.
There are also challenges to us as policy makers. Some are cultural, some substantive and some simply mundane. How are others responding to them? And what are the ones we have missed?
Nothing new here
Some challenges are cultural – for example it is easy to demonstrate Government is joined up in a physical world. All interested departments can attend a consultative meeting , and a document can have multiple logos. But what is the equivalent for a tweet? (Or, perhaps more realistically, a blog?)
We are told that the best digital engagement is engagement by a real live individual, rather than an organisation. I must confess it feels a little odd to be writing a blog that will appear in my own name. But at another level civil servants have spent decades speaking at conferences, contributing articles etc, to help elucidate government policy and seek new ideas. So well established is this that there is even central guidance about when to charge! So there is nothing basically new here. Civil servants are human, so there will be mistakes, but the principles are surely established.
Trickier, and something we have to learn by doing, is finding the right amount of time to spend contributing and listening to the electronic debate. Search engines have revolutionised policy making, and crowd sourcing is beginning to do so (as this blog may show).
Counting replies or weighing the arguments?
But to my mind the more interesting questions are substantive. The pre-digital challenges often lay in getting responses. Now however the challenge can be analysing tens of thousands of responses. Good policy making is not an exercise in popularity – counting the replies – but one in weighing the arguments. This means ensuring those likely to have a material view have been heard, rather than any debate being drowned out by one side. There is an important role for dissenting voices. We need to avoid assuming more responses automatically means more insight. The more responses the trickier this can be.
Digital also makes much more real the opportunity for direct comments from the front line – where the policy rubber hits the road of the real world. Does this mean over time we could be seeing the dis-intermediation of trade associations, lobbyists, professional bodies. Does this matter? What would be the implications for good policy making?
Iterative policy making
Similarly the pace of policy making is rightly changing. Royal Commissions are so rare that some might think them extinct. Policy is made much faster than before. The great majority of formal consultations are open for a matter of months, with a response following some months later. But is this linear model of consultation followed by response still appropriate? Nowadays some responses can arrive within days or hours of the consultation launch. Email has attuned us all to expect rapid replies – so there is increasing pressure to know what will happen next, even while the consultation period is still open. Even more interestingly, in some cases early responses to a consultation may suggest that either it is being misunderstood, or prompt other ideas of things on which it would be good to get views.
Good policy making could point to revising the consultation as it goes along – so the consultation becomes a dialogue on the issues. In many cases ministers may not want to be bothered with collective agreement to every last detail of such revisions in real time, but just be interested in the final results. So it is not surprising experience suggests this may need a different approach to that we have traditionally taken. And it creates new challenges around making sure the consultation process is truly consultative of everyone including those who are not glued to their smart phones. Are we going to deny consultees the ability to ever switch the phone off and go on holiday? How do we get this balance right going forward?
In all this we must not forget the mundane, practical points. For example as policy makers move from one posting to another how do they hand over their successors their electronic contacts? Easy for emails – but how do you hand over a following on twitter?
We will keep blogging about digital and policy making, but welcome your thoughts on the challenges above - please comment!
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