Earlier this year, Civil Service Quarterly ran an article I wrote about the wellbeing policy programme, where I was working at the time.
It mentioned an idea we had been kicking around the office, based on analysis about special events and national wellbeing levels. The article posed the question of whether it would be better to keep our bank holidays as they are now, or move one to later in the year.
It got picked up by The Sun. While it was great to see a CSQ article and our thinking in the national press, they weren’t terribly keen on the idea: apparently all you had to do to know that this one wasn't a goer was to ask sane people. People we work with, the public, and the media occasionally criticise civil servants and government for policy that doesn't reflect 'real lives' or 'real people', but it hadn’t happened to me before. I wondered when I’d traded in my 'normal' card for a civil service pass. “Don't I have friends, family, a kitchen to clean, bills to pay, hopes and dreams of my own?” I thought. “Am I not a people?”
Well, actually, er, no. In some ways, civil servants are different to ‘real people’, and I’m not sure we can substitute ourselves for them in the policy process. I started thinking about this on a recent session of a public dialogue project I'm working on with Sciencewise and the new economics foundation (I've talked about this before). This session, about the part we play in our communities, was in Birkenhead – not far from where I was born and grew up. I was confident I had a good idea of how the session would go and the ideas and issues the people attending would bring forward.
I nodded along to the ice-breaker question, where the participants introduced themselves and talked about communities they were part of. I recognised the towns and villages; I could picture exactly what they were talking about, knew exactly what they were thinking...
The inevitable admission of hubris would fit perfectly here, but this isn't quite where I realised I was wrong. Knowing the area well, I’d had some private guesses about what people might say and the perspectives they might bring. A lot of them held up. Then – here’s the hubris – the questions got a bit more complicated. And the discussion started.
Since joining the OPM team, I've started to learn about user-centred design and ethnographic tools like customer journeys and personas, intended to put policy makers in the position of potential service users and how they interact with our work. This is pretty doable. We can put ourselves into the places of people, we can come up with their backgrounds, life stories, preferences, problems, circumstances and emotions. We can imagine their response to a policy idea or a programme.
What I don’t think we can do is re-create the alchemy of lots of people together, the ideas, conversations, and priorities that come out of personalities colliding and colluding. We might think we’re starting policy on a blank piece of paper; actually I suspect we’re scribbling in the margins of 60 million autobiographies. That’s where public dialogue can come in. It gives policy makers the perspectives of many different ‘real’ people, not only service users or people who are already interested enough in an issue to look for information or opportunities to engage.
The other thing I found I couldn’t do – the thing that made me 'not people' for the purposes of the policy session – is forget what I know. For example, the general election in May 2015 is a live issue for us in government, as the electoral cycle draws in towards a close. But as came out in some discussions, for many participants it isn’t important (probably won’t be for several months yet). Even with the new-to-me policy areas in the project, it’s been challenging to let go of the context of my experiences in government, and really see things as a member of the public might see them.
I'm not saying that public dialogue is perfect, or even in every case necessary. For one thing, asking a few people, in a few places, can never be taken to represent the views and preferences of the whole ‘real country’. But as part of our policy work, we need to know what people think. And I’ve learnt not to believe we can get there without asking.
Are civil servants 'real'? Leave a comment below or let us know what you think on twitter.