Political Innovation no 4: See Change – opening policy research to the public

This is a guest cross-post by Ivo Gormley – originally posted on the Political Innovation site here.

Although Government claims to want our participation and wants us to appreciate its policies, it hides the evidence on which it bases its policies in fat documents and reports that are hard to read and only available free at special events at think-tanks around Whitehall.

pile of paper

Responding to our consultation? Excellent! Here's the background reading.... (click pic for credit)

If we want participation in politics in a way that goes beyond choice we need to share policy research in a way that engages people and invites their comments, ideas and understanding.

I propose that as part of the development of a white paper which is likely to result in a social impact, an ethnographic documentary exploring the lives of those who will be affected should be produced. This documentary would be based on existing research and would allow a more accessible and jargon-free way of engaging with the issue.

Following the television or web broadcast of the documentary there would be a defined period of time for public debate and feedback. The documentary and the public feedback would then be inputted to a policy design meeting at which the policy’s stakeholders could also be present.

The process would bring transparency and participation to an area of government that appears very closed.

Numerous governmental organisations, from the Department of Health to local Government, are starting to put more of an emphasis on qualitative research. Organisations are becoming aware of the importance of understanding their users and are commissioning research in order to do so. Yet still, most of this research is kept private or is not designed to be consumed by the public.

By focusing on the existing experiences of the user, or those affected, an ethnographic documentary commissioned from inside government departments, could provide a platform for informed public debate and collaboration between state and citizen in a way that would side-step party-political leanings.

The approach will both qualify and invite comment at the same time: a publicly aired exploration of the real lives of those who will be affected by a policy provides a level playing field for comment and idea generation. To an extent, it also educates viewers in the policy context and so qualifies them to comment. Crucially, it would often bring useful evidence into the process from sources that are not usually involved.

Bringing the public exploration of policy context – from the point of view of those affected – into the process of developing and proposing a new policy could have significant affect on the relationship between government and citizens.  It would allow more creative ideas to come from a wider range of sources and allow a formal and powerful opportunity for citizens to influence government. It would also help to create a mandate which may lead to faster implementation of those policies.

By inviting the public into the process of developing policies I believe we can get better policies and more efficient government.

About Political Innovation

We’d be very interested to hear any ideas that you have for an essay of your own –we’ll need an email and we’ll want to discuss it with you before it goes on the site. All contributions will be archived on www.politicalinnovation.org – along with details of what we’re looking for from essayists and a bunch of FAQs and a guide to how we hope the whole thing will play out.

I hope you’ll get involved in this as a commenter, participant or maybe even as an essayist. Make sure you don’t miss anything by joining our Google Group, subscribing to the blog RSS feed, getting each post emailed to you and, of course, following us on Twitter and Facebook.

, , , ,

  • But usually you can see the evidence – TV reports and articles in the Daily Mail.

    In the case of the law forbidding cycling on pavements, a pressure group got its members to write identical letters to their local newspapers, saying they had been knocked over by a bicycle and had to go to hospital. All they changed were the names of the street and the hospital. At the time, a Google search on a phrase in the letter turned up lots of very similar ones on local newspaper web sites. They then took a bundle of the letters printed in the newspapers along to the Home Office to get them to change the law.

  • aquifer

    Qualitative schmalitative. Why use opinions when you can use numbers. Slabs of prose are the happy hunting ground of bullies and chancers, the consultants’ smokescreen to smuggle in the ministers pet project, the puffed up PR of people with little to say, the lifeblood of the full colour report printing industry.

    Put what is done, why it is done, and what it costs on the internet. e.g. What is the market value of all the free parking provided for DRD staff in their own private multi-storey executive carpark. Check against evidence. How many DRD staff need to use their car for work during each day. Is it just a tax-free perk?

    Policy advice should be guided and reviewed by experts. The briefings prepared for assembly committees look weak. Weak policy analysis leads nowhere.

    Analysis should be rated for clarity content and brevity.

  • Two things aquifer:

    1. You seem to be saying that the level of public participating in policymaking is fine and there’s no need to involve a wider public?

    2. Much as it’s vitally important to find out the DRD staff have somewhere to park their car or not, aren’t there bigger issues for the whole ‘transparency’ agenda to address? It’s not all about relentlessly pressing the case for small government….

  • Mil

    I think we often sheer away from qualitative because it’s more difficult to measure, not because it’s less useful to the final outcome. Many large companies now split their performance management 50/50 between what we do and how we do it. If big business thinks it’s a good idea, why not big (or, indeed, small) government.

    What’s more, as I’ve argued elsewhere, Ivo’s suggestion attempts to adapt process to people (far more of us not only know how but also prefer to read a film than a book these days), rather than requiring people to adapt to process.

    In the YouTube generation, qualitative works. We should extend Ivo’s original suggestion and allow comments by the public and further debate so engaged to also be left in the form of film and video evidence.

  • Surely the need for only quantitive evidence is, in itself, a demand for all communication to be ‘machine readable’ – ‘you can respond to my consultation as long as you fill in my form’?

    Leaving aside the monopolistic consequences of this, there’s a substantial element of democratic discourse that is about being *seen* to involve people – providing people with a means of getting involved and knowing that if they bring something new to the table, it’ll be noticed?

  • Ivo

    thanks for the comments. Dave- although there is a countless amount of qualitative information out there on policy issues the difference i’m proposing is that this material is created for, and embedded in, the policy creation process. If the material it is created on behalf of those affected by a policy in order to feed into a policy creation process is will be completely different, in terms of its aims, content and form, to a Daily Mail article or a Cutting Edge documentary.

    Aquifer – the process I suggest is not in opposition to quantitative information. The documentary should be based on solid statistics so that the opinions and lives it presents are to some extent representative of the larger picture. I absolutely agree about the points of clarity, brevity and content that think that documentary can be a very efficient way of delivering a thorough understanding of an issue. I do not think however that this should be classed as analysis; the purpose of the documentary in this context is to provoke analysis, it should try its hardest not to itself analyse the issue. I prefer Mil’s description of the documentary as ‘evidence’ and think that, though at times these may be hard to distinguish between, providing a strong qualitative representation of the issue at the early stages of policy creation would create stronger debates and better policies.