An open and shut case? - RSA

An open and shut case?


  • Leadership
  • Spirituality

Call it a tragic irony or, more prosaically, another example of human cognitive frailty, but while we nearly always notice fast occurring defeats and victories we rarely appreciate outcomes of equal or greater significance that take years to unfold. So, however long it has taken to achieve, it is well worth marking a seachange in the methodology of policy making.

For more than twenty-five years I have been advocating an approach from Government that demands more from the public while also treating citizens with greater respect.  On Friday, while chairing a Cabinet Office conference on Open Policy Making it occurred to me this argument has reached a turning point; it is a matter now of how, not whether, it will be won.

My own journey began in the mid-nineties when a Research Fellow at Warwick University working on a Joseph Rowntree-funded project designed by David Blunkett (often ahead of the curve in his thinking). The project explored the degree to which public service interventions rely upon, and might potentially foster, civic effort. At a time when the idea of a ‘demographic time bomb’ was just coming to public prominence, my research looked at the mix of public sector, familial and voluntary effort involved in providing care to older people.

I came up with some pretty big figures for the contribution made beyond the state and reached the obvious conclusion that policy should seek to supplement and encourage that effort rather than ignoring it or crowding it out. But when I presented the paper at a departmental seminar I met a response that, over the years, I have come to expect: No one exactly disagreed but neither did any one seem terrible excited.

Partly, this is ideological. Those on the left traditionally haven’t really seen a problem with the state doing everything and are suspicious of the inequalities lurking in families and wider civil society. The right is sceptical that the state could ever do anything but suffocate civic effort and increase dependency. More generally, the indifference reflects a view that while it is obvious public service outcomes are a joint effort of the state and civil society, and while there may be many small interventions which might demonstrate this idea in practice, it is far less clear what it means for the kind of large scale policy debates that dominate national politics.

As Director of IPPR and a Number Ten policy advisor I kept banging on the same drum with more or less the same response. Tony Blair, for example, would politely but unenthusiastically listen to my rather vague thesis before turning his rapt attention to more thrusting colleagues as they made the sinuous case for quasi-markets, huge technological solutions and greater consumer choice. The case for reform might be made in terms of people power but public service users were seen as consumers not citizens.

My first RSA annual lecture, in similar vein, focussed on the idea of moving from a Government-centric to a more citizen-centric model of social change: How could new forms of politics and policy help us close gap between our collective aspirations and the trajectory on which current attitudes and behaviours place us?

Of course, I haven’t been the only voice; not the loudest and certainly not the most coherent. From ideas of public service co-design and co-production to the concept of the ‘relational state’ many others have made the case and promoted examples of different policies and forms of delivery.

When David Cameron first expounded the idea of the Big Society I saw an attempt to put the notion of a renewed relationship between state and citizens at the heart of a political project. I was a great enthusiast. But, as it turned out most of the big beasts of the Tory Party and Whitehall reacted to the Big Society with that same old polite disdain.

Yet in the idea of ‘open policy-making’ (OPM) I hope we have at last reached a tipping point beyond which a more ambitious model of citizen engagement gradually becomes the norm. To use the jargon, after thirty years of dominance it may at last be that the nostrums of New Public Management are being superseded by those of OPM.

OPM is a broad term and suffers from being erroneously reduced to only one of its components; for example, opening up data to citizens or adopting a more design-based trial and error approach to policy development. But the core elements, it seems to me, are that Government can only be effective if it is able to mobilise the efforts of citizens as service users, carers and community members, that it should share problems and the analytical tools (especially data) it has to solve them, should prefer small incremental to large expensive solutions, be willing to experiment and be tolerant of failure and should listen hard to the views and experiences of service users as well as providing multiple channels for those to be expressed.  To turn those principles into action there is a large and growing tool kit ranging from ethnographic research methods to design based decision-making and data visualisation.

At the conference last Friday, as well as a mix of senior civil servants and external practitioners from outfits such as NESTA, the Design Council and the Denmark’s MindLab, the impressive line-up of speakers included Cabinet Officer minister Francis Maude, Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Haywood and Chris Warmald who combines being Perm Sec at Education with leading the policy profession across Whitehall.

Amidst the enthusiasm there was recognition of the various pitfalls facing the advocates of OPM. These include tendencies to overstate the degree to which it departs from existing good practice or to fall into jargon and a technocratic worldview (all problems can be solved with the right data). But by far the biggest challenge remains the one I identified here – reconciling the scale of innovation in policy making with the unedifying and unreconstructed reality of political manoeuvring.

An example was provided by Francis Maude who contrasted the evidence-based and collaborative nature of OPM with his largely vain attempts every year to stop his ministerial colleagues unveiling headline-grabbing but often ill-prepared policy initiatives at Party conference. Equally, I have very little sense that Labour is aware of much of this work, let alone that the Opposition appreciates its potential to underpin a more progressive and popular model of government. One of the senior civil servants extolling the virtues of OPM told me that rational decision making on big issues has almost ground to a halt in Government as the Coalition 'partners' retreat to build up their supply of arms for the General Election battle. The small scale of most OPM at least means it will be less impacted by this abandonment of public interest considerations by our elected representatives.

Still, I am confident. However much I would like it say it was voices like mine that have wrought the shift of OPM from the left field margins to the edge of the mainstream, it is in fact bigger forces; changing public attitudes and expectations, new computing power, the ubiquity of social media, and the inevitability of continuing constraints on public expenditure.

Open policy-making is the future. Politics will simply have to catch up. I wonder who will get the credit when it does.

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