This afternoon we put together a roundtable event @ the Hospital Club in Covent Garden to get a mix of Central and Local government policy-makers, consultation managers and communications advisers to discuss how participative policy-making could be improved in UK government.

Trends of ideas discussed included:

The importance of a “response”. Participants need to know they’ve been heard – or will disengage, and the notion of participation will turn negative rather than positive. Someone described this as 360 policy-making.
The need for government to “re-engineer” itself – and to identify its role and relationship with citizens
The idea of of “real time government”, where government feeds back much quicker and is more accountable and innovative at the same time.
The idea of creating the role of the “CIO” – Chief Ideas Officer – who works as the glue between Communications teams and Policy makers – as it was noted the two teams often don’t connect as well as they should.
– The fact that participative policy making can’t be ignored. It’s a fact that people are becoming more participative, and expect to be able to participate. Burying civil-servant heads in sand and ignoring this wider-cultural shift is definitely not an option.

Issues / concerns flagged were:

– The question of whether a culture of participation in government issues exists.
– How to manage feedback gathered. For example, how do you manage / make useful 30,000 responses / new policy ideas?
– The problem of policy cycles – i.e. often policy turnaround is potentially too quick to ensure effective participative policy-making works
– The difference (in legal terms) between online and offline conversation i.e. civil-servants’ remarks in written form (e.g. email) are more likely to be miscommunicated than in face-to-face scenarios, and emails can also be historically stored.

Finally, we ended the session with a kind of “wish-list” of key things we’d like to improve in governance, and to be implemented by (at least) 2020:

Training for senior civil-servants to understand how best to engineer participative policy-making is crucial in transforming the governance processes
Leadership. There needs to be strong leadership and buy-in of this from the top (in a similar way to President Obama’s Open Gov memorandum)
– Providing solutions / processes for making the ideas / data gathered in participative making processes useful and useable by policy-makers. Widening the policy funnel is the easy bit to a point, it’s making use of the intelligence gathered that is the most important aspect.
– Governance framework to set clear roles and responsibilities, especially in cross-agency instances. The idea of a CIO (Chief Ideas Officer) could be an effective way of achieving this.
– The need to frame / structure participative policy making exercises better, so they don’t turn into complaints spaces, but useful ideas gathering spaces (clearly defining the different between “service opinion” and “policy ideas”)

Overall the roundtable was really useful – and some really practical insights / ideas were produced by the assembled team. I’ll now wait with baited breath til 2020 to see if any of these come to fruition!