Skip to main content

Blog Policy Lab

Civil Service

Am I not a people? - A policy maker's view on public dialogue

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Examples and findings, Thought Pieces

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.

Sharing and comments

Share this page


  1. Comment by Dan Phillips posted on

    Very true. Nobody can be another person. In truth, nobody can be themselves consistently as we change through our lives and are affected by the people around us and our environments. The best we can do is to develop empathy, to listen, and to take the role of the disadvantaged and disconsolate so that we develop services that help those who need most support.

    • Replies to Dan Phillips>

      Comment by Lisa Ollerhead posted on

      Hi Dan, thanks for commenting! I agree with this, although I think we can only 'take the role' of others up to a point - so that's why asking the question, and listening carefully to the answers, is so important.

  2. Comment by Adrian Barker posted on

    Thanks for a very interesting and thought provoking blog. After reading it, I've addressed the issue from the opposite direction - how can I be 'a people' in a committee of professionals - in a blog here:

    • Replies to Adrian Barker>

      Comment by Lisa Ollerhead posted on

      Hi Adrian, thanks for this comment! This is the first post of ours that somebody has run with and blogged themselves, I'm really happy. I found your blog very interesting, the lesson I see in looking at both pieces is how important it is to take a step back from whatever roles we're playing in different parts of our lives and at different times and take a look at the perspective we're coming from and what we are bringing that's of special value - especially in a role like yours which I suppose is in some sense intended to be representative or presenting the view of what the law might call the 'reasonable person'.


Leave a comment

We only ask for your email address so we know you're a real person

By submitting a comment you understand it may be published on this public website. Please read our privacy notice to see how the GOV.UK blogging platform handles your information.