Open Policy Making: Procedural or Instrumental?

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Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government writes about the UK Government’s approach to ‘open policy making’.

One of the questions at the SKAPE launch on Thursday was whether the UK government was pursuing open policy making for procedural (increasing involvement, democratic engagement in the policy making process) or for instrumental reasons (getting better results).

Part of the problem of open policy making is that the phrase suggests the former, but the emerging practice makes it clear that it is intended to achieve the latter. The UK Cabinet Office’s own description of what open policy making is, is in fact a description of what the “more open” policy maker does.

Many of the initiatives taken under the open policy making banner underline that this is about drawing on wider sources of expertise, applying new techniques, improving the evidence base and doing policy differently:

• The Contestable Policy Fund which allows the Cabinet Office to match fund departmental bids to get policy advice from outside the civil service – 16 bids have been funded so far;
• The establishment of the Policy Lab – now on its first project – to apply MINDLAB style ethnographic and design techniques to incorporate a user perspective better into service design;
• The work of the – now spun out – Behavioural Insights Team – to promote both the application of those insights but also a more rigorous approach to experimentation in government, as exemplified by the title of their publication: Test, Learn, Adapt
• The establishment of new What Works Centres built on the long-established role of NICE and the more recent work of the Education Endowment Foundation to give both policy makers and commissioners a better handle on the evidence for effective intervention.

All these are potentially useful additions to improve the way policy is made. But at the moment they are either in proof of concept stage, just being established or only dealing with quite technocratic niche issues. The question remains of whether ministers will be willing to apply this new way of doing things to some of their more cherished commitments – and whether we see significant changes to some of the most secretive policy making processes. The fact that the Cabinet Secretary has said that open policy making is less risky policy making did not stop the Chancellor revelling in the fact he could wrong foot the opposition with a giant pensions rabbit in the Budget.
And even if these changes do make for better outcomes, they do not necessarily improve public engagement in the policy process. Indeed, as Albert Weale pointed out on Thursday, at the same time as the civil service reform plan was “making open policy making the default” the government was simultaneously rewriting earlier guidance to reduce the obligation to consult.

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