Parliamentary Committees and Public Enquiries
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Report published on public engagement in policy-making
In a report published today, the Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) calls for a “wiki” approach to policy-making, where public opinion, ideas and contributions are sought and welcome at any and all stages of the policy cycle. PASC says that Government should be able to demonstrate that it has adopted this approach alongside ministerial leadership and responsibility for policy and its outcomes.
The Committee says:
All policy making carries risks: a lack of appetite for participation, disappointment arising from unrealistic expectations and the dominance of vested interests. Government must frankly assess and address these risks in relation to open policy making.
Digital technology has a significant role to play in opening up policy-making. Government could and should go further and embrace radical and innovative approaches, but making use of existing platforms and technologies, such as Twitter. However, Government must demonstrate that the methods used in engagement exercises are suited to the needs of those they are trying to engage.
The success and impact of public engagement in policy-making must be effectively measured. Government must able to demonstrate value for money and improved outcomes with this new approach, particularly in a time of austerity.
The Committee says proposals for both “open” and “contestable” policy-making demonstrate that Government recognises the value of public opinion in helping to identify problems and develop solutions. However, for open policy-making to work, it must be a genuine departure from more traditional forms of policy-making, where public engagement has usually only occurred after the Government has already determined a course of action.
Care must be taken to ensure that open policy-making processes are not dominated by vested interests or ‘the usual suspects’ who are aware of policy ‘opportunities’. Government should undertake a risk analysis of open and contestable policy-making proposals in every case. This is particularly true where one group or organisation will be tasked with providing recommendations to Government on a particular problem. As a minimum, contracts awarded through the contestable policy-making fund must require organisations to undertake appropriate public engagement and demonstrate how this influenced its conclusions.
If open policy-making is to succeed, public engagement must be integrated into ‘the day job’. The Committee says the Civil Service “does not have a monopoly on policy-making” but civil servants are well placed to act as guardians of the process. To support them in this, public engagement in policy-making should be addressed in policy development programmes for civil servants and in the induction programme for Ministers.
Beyond the "Westminster Village"
Bernard Jenkin MP, Chairman of the Committee said:
“To govern is to choose. Open policy-making should take debate outside Whitehall and into the community as a whole, at every stage of the policy-making process. Open policy-making requires Ministers to commit the time for public engagement and dialogue with groups and experts outside Whitehall. This is different from responding to media pressures and lobbying, which rarely enable Ministers to reach beyond the ‘Westminster village’.
“There can be no substitute for Ministers’ responsibility for Government policy and its outcomes, but we believe that there is great potential for open and contested policy-making to deliver genuine public engagement. If the Government wants to maximise the benefits of this new approach to policy, it will mean far more than simply being an encyclopaedia of information, policy and guidance.
“Citizens will be most likely to engage with Government if they believe they can make a real difference, or where the issue affects them. We believe the Government has the difficult task of ensuring adequate public participation in open policy-making. Without this, the process will be of little value. The Government must take steps to build confidence in the open policy-making process and to ensure that participation is sufficient to make the exercise meaningful and worthwhile. It must also learn how to measure and so demonstrate the success of this new approach.”
"Making better policy"
Robert Halfon MP, Member of the Committee, said:
“This Report sets the direction of travel for public engagement, and whilst welcoming the Government's moves towards more digital engagement, I would like to see advances toward more direct, real public involvement in policy making, whether via the Internet or other means. The most important point is that Government treats public engagement as a serious part of policy-making, and that must mean communicating and engaging in ways that are tailored to every audience, in new and more traditional ways. This is not just a time or cost saving exercise, although using existing and new technology and media well should bring those benefits. This is about making better policy.”