It is eighteen months now since central government announced reforms to policy making with an action to make ‘open’ policy making the default. Despite its important role in the process as the interface between government and citizens, there was no specific mention of local government. In an LGC article in July 2012, Anthony Zacharzewski from Demsoc challenged local government to ‘show that it is the indispensable voice of delivery expertise’ and ‘work on a common approach to policy-making at a local level.’ However, looking at the evidence to date, connections between local and central government have been slow to develop and this seems starkly the case on the Open Policy Making website which lists only one case study – YouChoose - as specific to local government.
Claire Webb, a veteran (not in a pejorative sense you understand) of both local and central government, recently wrote an excellent blog for We Love Local Government where she pointed out that both local and central government officers often face the same challenges. As she rightly says: ‘It’s about enabling all the available brain power to come together to tackle a problem. Central government has access to research and external expertise that local government can only dream of; local government has access to real people and a first-hand understanding of day to day delivery and the important realities of day to day life that policy has to work with.’ This all begs the question: shouldn’t they be collaborating more on policies and solutions and, if they are, where are they doing it?
When I first think about open policy making, it’s the citizen engagement element that I see as being critical. However there are also the intelligent intermediaries between central government and citizens that are possibly being too often overlooked, either because there is nowhere to collaborate effectively or perhaps because public approval is considered the panacea.
Open policy making is as much about doing your thinking in public as it is crowd sourcing. What this means, is that the process doesn’t necessarily need to involve everyone all the time but ensure that the right people are in the mix and there is transparency around the thinking that is taking place.
So, the question is, where can trusted, open and secure collaborations between government departments, local government and the growing number of ‘other’ stakeholders effectively occur? Where can a range of people have complex conversations, incubate ideas and create outputs for review and implementation? Twitter’s too simple, email’s too unwieldy and the government collaboration platforms that do exist are either closed to the ‘gsi’ network or require the purchase of user licenses.
What’s the answer (or, at least, ‘an’ answer)? Well, where can you find 160,000+ members already having policy debates in a place that’s free for all public, voluntary and third sector people to join? I think that’s obvious (but I would). Perhaps it’s time to separate the wheat from the chaff, see the wood for the trees, and focus on turning this platform from a place simply for conversations into a user designed space for real open debate and policy making.
That's my challenge. And yours.