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Where the policy rubber hits the road

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

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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  1. Comment by Val Hewson posted on

    Interesting points. As you've mentioned the pre-digital experience, it's worth remembering that for many people in the UK (often among the most disadvantaged and numbering in the millions), it is still a pre-digital world. We mustn't forget their right to have views and contribute ideas and comments.

  2. Comment by Jo Kaczmarek posted on

    Great blog, Richard. Especially agree with point about not counting quantity of responses but assessing the quality. And following the information we receive.

  3. Comment by GGM posted on

    My overwhelming feeling is there are a lot of people doing work in and around this subject that are not mindful.

    • Replies to GGM>

      Comment by David Durant posted on

      Not sure what you mean by "not mindful" in this context. There's certainly a lot of people both inside and outside of government either working in or having strong opinions in this area. Bringing them together to have a meta-level discussion about it is a big challenge itself.

      The Speaker's Consultation on Digital Democracy is doing good work in this area.

  4. Comment by GGM posted on

    The point about time is important to me. Depending where you are with regard to 'tools' and how your understanding of them helps when tasked to do a piece of work. I try to be mindful, to slow down and figure out a solid digital strategy, or not as the case may be.

    Digital can mean many things. For me it offers the functionality to be heard in a crowd. The best analogy I have heard is going into a packed bar and not having a strategy to get yourself a drink. You would probably leave and try and find a quieter bar. If you can find one you might possibly get the same result. Looking at it as the bar manager what strategies would you have to employ to make sure your customers all get served and no benefit is lost just because they can't be heard?

    However, I am again mindful about my understanding of how digital tools and strategies work together. A little bit of creativity makes a difference but business know how, innovation in use of tools and a huge amount of individual skills is probably the reason for success I might have had with digital. A lack of confidence in my abilities also makes me not consider digital, at times, too.

    • Replies to GGM>

      Comment by David Durant posted on

      > A lack of confidence in my abilities also makes me not consider digital, at times, too.

      This is why building digial communities of interest / practice in government to share case studies and positive new ways of working is becoming such a hugely important thing many people are starting to focus on.

  5. Comment by David Durant posted on

    Good post, thanks.

    Two things I'd like to bring up.

    First of all an ideal consultation is, as you say, a dialogue. However, we must expect that such dialogues will quickly become between citizens and citizens groups themselves (mesh) rather than just between them and the people running the consultation (hub and spokes). It's vital for this kind of communication to have a community manager to moderate the conversation but not to drive the discussion.

    Secondly, much is to be gained by increasing the level of transparency. Let members of the public subscribe to your team's backlog of work so they can see what's being done and when. This not only seriously upgrades the level of inclusiveness interested parties can have in the work but also gives them plenty of advanced opportunity to point out potential issues or suggestions that those owning the work may not have seen.


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