Government culture needs to change, says Simon Burall.
In September 2011, the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) announced an inquiry into public engagement in policy making. My organisation, the public engagement charity Involve  submitted written evidence  and I later appeared in front of the committee as part of the inquiry.
The committee’s inquiry was prompted by the publication of the government’s Civil Service Reform (CSR) plan , specifically chapter two on improving policy making capacity . In this chapter the Government says, ‘Whitehall does not have a monopoly on policy making expertise’, and goes on to explore ways in which policy making could be opened up to a wider range of experts, organisations, or even the public.
Government finds it hard enough to engage the public on topics it thinks citizens know something about. However, there are large areas of public policy which involve a complex mixture of economic, scientific and other forms of highly technical evidence. These are areas where most citizens have limited experience and knowledge. As a result most policy makers struggle to understand what value the public will add to the decision making process.
Hybrid and chimera embryos
And yet there are a growing number of examples of where opening up highly complex and technical policy areas to the public voice can prove invaluable. One example would be in the emerging area of the use of hybrid and chimera embryos for biomedical research. This research has the potential to lead to new treatments for diseases.
The regulatory body responsible, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority , was keen to explore  how the public ‘balanced the ethics, risks and benefits of mixing human and animal genetic material.’ Overall the HFEA used four different ways to draw in public views: an open public meeting, an opinion poll, a formal written consultation and a deliberative dialogue . This latter was supported by Sciencewise  and was a critical element of the overall consultation.
The dialogue consisted of small discussion groups involving participants recruited to represent a diverse public. Participants were first introduced to the scientific and ethical issues relating to the technology; initial reactions were then gathered. During a second stage of the dialogue the participants were brought together again into a full day workshop where they had the chance to deliberate the issues with their peers and a range of expert speakers.
During the dialogue, participants expressed some concerns about the ethical and practical implications of such experiments. However, most supported the creation of cytoplasmic hybrid embryos for research if there was a clear rationale; that is, that it would, or could, provide useful understanding of human diseases. As a result the HFEA decided , ‘after careful consideration of the evidence gathered through the public dialogue [...] that cytoplasmic embryo research should be allowed to move forward, with caution and careful [regulatory] scrutiny.’
This authorisation of such experiments was a change in policy and the responses of the public during the dialogue played an important part in helping the HFEA to develop confidence that, with appropriate safeguards, the public are supportive of further research in the area.
In both our written and verbal evidence, we used examples such as the HFEA case study above to argue that public engagement can have a range of advantages for policy making. These include increased democratic legitimacy, greater accountability and ultimately more effective and efficient policy. Indeed, it doesn’t mean handing over the decision to the public. As the HFEA example illustrates, a lack of understanding of the trade-offs the public might make around a particular policy decision could lead to assumptions being made about what the public want which are unfounded.
However, public engagement is largely marginalised within the policy making process. Too often government asks the public their views it because it has to, not because it wants to. As a result, citizens’ experiences of engaging with government are uninspiring and frustrating. This leads to considerable cynicism with formal engagement processes and a downwards spiral of decreasing trust of citizens in government and the democratic process.
While the term ‘open policy making’ may sound like the latest buzzword which will disappear with the changing seasons, the underlying technological and social drivers are real and forcing a shift in the relationship between citizen and government.
Prising policy process open
The most visible change is the technical one. The rise of the internet has made it easier than ever for the public to access information about what government is doing. In addition, the recent explosion in use of social media and blogs, for example, has made it relatively trivial for groups and individuals with shared passions to come together to campaign on issues that exercise them. Citizens are increasingly engaging with the issues on their own terms and not those set by government. This is prising open the policy process whether government likes it or not.
Largely I’d share the government’s analysis that Whitehall doesn’t have all of the answers, and that it must reach out to a much wider range of expertise, including that held by the public. However, the current model of policy making gets in the way and I’m not clear that the changes the government proposes in the CSR plan go anywhere near far enough to ensure that citizens will re-engage.
Decisions already taken
Research  we undertook a couple of years ago provides some clear answers as to why citizens aren’t engaging with government, and why they are unlikely to even if the CSR is implemented in full. Through life history interviews we invited participants to reflect on their experiences of engaging in their communities and with government.
None of our interviewees had a positive experience engaging with formal government consultations. Their views were ignored, largely because decisions had already been taken.
‘. . . it was so poorly done that you could say that’s why I went on the march in the end … your voice wasn’t being heard as part of that [consultation] thing.’
Opening up to a wider range of voices, without doing it earlier in the policy making cycle before decisions have been taken, will only exacerbate this problem. Government needs to find ways to focus civil servants at least as much outwards towards citizens as they do upwards within the Whitehall hierarchy.
My worry about the CSR is that it focuses on the tools and methods of public engagement; specifically the latest fad, crowdsourcing. This is the wrong way round.
Of course, choosing the right tools to engage the public, whether they are the right digital platform or the right type of meeting process, does matter. However, using the right tools is only a necessary and not a sufficient condition for ensuring that the public will engage.
In the end what will really count is whether government is able to change its culture to one that is able to hear what the public is saying, absorb it, and then demonstrate that it is acting on it. If government can’t do that then it won’t be worth the public’s time to engage; and they are too rational to waste their time doing so.