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Open policy making: what is it, and why does it matter anyway?

By November 2, 2015February 23rd, 2017No Comments

In a new series of blogs, Siobhan Farrell will be discussing the state of open policy in 2015. Over the next few weeks we’ll be discussing what impacts it can have, what the criteria for good open policy are and who is doing it well. This blog goes back to basics by looking at what open policy making means and why it matters.

 A quick Google search for “open policy making” will tell you that there are as many ideas about what open policy making means as there are institutions claiming to implement it. There’s no hard and fast rule about what criteria need to apply for a decision making process to be considered open. At a basic level, everyone needs to be able to see clearly the genesis of policy and understand its journey towards realisation.

It’s more than just being transparent about decision making, though. Open policy making means enabling people to influence and enhance policy during its formulation. Policy making is open when everyone can get involved and collaborate; be they experts through experience, interested citizens or elected officials. And it can go further than that too – when publics are invited and empowered to help design the processes of decision making itself. That’s why we at Public-i are particularly proud of our role in the NHS Citizen project, where members of the public have been involved in designing new system for patient voice in NHS England.

A group of people sit in a large room, facing a stage.

The first NHS Citizen Assembly, September 2014. Photo credit: NHS Citizen

Open policy making and digital technology

The beauty of living in a digital and networked world is that there are more and more opportunities to engage with people in different ways, using different platforms. That’s part of the reason that open policy making has grown in recent years. It is easier than ever to canvass opinion and ask for information through the internet; social media, e-petitions and even good old fashioned email all make it far simpler for decision makers to hear from other people.

People are actively discussing politics online; and this is a gold mine of opinion, insight and evidence which has never been so easy to tap into. This is particularly true in the local context. Our social media research has shown time and again that there are many local and hyper-local conversations taking place on social media (particularly on Facebook) where decision makers can find a wealth of insight that is invaluable for policy making.

Digital is also a great tool in reaching those groups who are hard to hear, or easy to ignore. The phrase “nothing about us, without us” is the rallying cry of many minority groups who feel side-lined by traditional closed policy making processes. Technology enables these people to have a voice, and to shape the processes and policies which affect their lives. These digital technologies make the aggregation of opinion easier too; with collection and analysis tools readily available.

Of course, it is important that open policy making processes also engage those not included in the scope of digital technologies. So a mixture of offline and online engagement activities are key to ensure that everyone can be involved if they want to be. Sound difficult? Yes, it is.

Voting: no longer the only way to have your say? Photo credit: HJL

Voting: no longer the only way to have your say? Photo credit: HJL

What’s the point then? Why bother?

Why should decision makers open their processes to stakeholders, if it just makes things more complicated?

The simple fact is: openly made policy is usually better policy. The collective intelligence of people is a hugely valuable tool because it enables the creation of robust policy which has firm foundations in the society that it’s designed to serve. The need for better policy is another reason why the focus on open policy making has grown.

It all boils down to information: getting the best data and evidence possible and making the most informed decision. Open policy making recognises that expertise can exist outside of the mandarin bubble. Civil servants and decision makers are often generalists who lack expertise in specific policy areas. On the other hand, people who are experts through experience have often been excluded from the traditional decision making process. Lived experience is invaluable; it just feels like common sense to bring as much of it as possible into the process of making policy.

Arguably, it’s not just policy which is improved by opening the process up, but democracy itself. In the age of ever-diminishing participation in formal democratic processes, open policy making offers the disenchanted an opportunity to impact outcomes in a way that’s just not possible through casting a vote at the ballot box. It is often quoted (and misattributed) that watching laws being made is as off-putting as watching sausages being made (was it Saxe, Bismarck or Leo McGarry who said that?). If that’s the case then why not get people involved in that process, and make it better? Open policy making isn’t just about canvassing opinions; it’s about opening up the whole policy making process to new techniques, evidence and participants. Democratic participation is widened by offering people new ways to get involved. The open government partnership points out that by being involved in decision making, citizens’ trust in policy is improved, which makes it easier to implement. And surely, that’s a good thing?

Open. Photo credit: Justin Marty

Open. Photo credit: Justin Marty

So what does good open policy practice look like? What success criteria apply? That’s what we’ll be discussing in our next blog. Watch this space.

Got comments, suggestions or ideas? Let us know what you think by commenting below!


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