When people think about digital and policy-making, the focus tends to be on how policy-makers can use digital tools, particularly social media, to engage with the public. Whilst that’s a very valid activity, I think digital means something more fundamental to policy-making than just improving engagement by getting involved in a Twitter conversation. Digital delivery methods have transformed how consumers interact with commercial organisations and as Government transforms its services and the way users interact with us, I think that the way we make policy can also transform. In my view, digital service delivery offers a series of major opportunities to policy-makers.
1) New types of policy delivery
Technology is driving behaviour change and policy-makers need to be aware of these changes and open to different delivery methods, adapting to the needs and expectations of users. For example, in my department (DWP) we know that the way people and employers are conducting jobsearch and vacancy filling is changing, with greater use of mobile technology and social media, so it is imperative that we help our claimants respond to these developments, even if it is something as simple as ensuring those pictures of you doing something inappropriate at Glastonbury 2009 aren’t open for all (prospective employers) to see on your Facebook profile. The recent work by Defra on an interactive flood map is another good example.
2) Quicker policy delivery
The timetable from policy idea as a twinkle in the Minister's eye to actual delivery can often be frustratingly slow. There is often good reason for that - the need to properly test an idea, review the evidence, discuss it with stakeholders, put in place the legislation, make sure your operational delivery arm is primed to deliver, staff are trained etc. But often the need to change complicated legacy IT systems is a major factor. However, in a world where the Government delivers primarily through modern digital services, it would be theoretically possible to deliver policy overnight, by making a change to an existing service. At the moment we wait months to do an IT release – Flickr do 10 releases per day. More intuitive services might also help with issues such as staff training. Now the likelihood of overnight policy delivery ever happening is probably rather small, given all the other issues (e.g. legislation) which will need to be worked through. But the onus for speed may well be on policy-makers in the future.
3) Agile policy-making
If policy-makers are expected to develop policy more quickly in the future, wouldn't it be helpful if there was a new, speedier way to do it? Up to now I've been focused on the 'D'-word (Digital), rather than the 'A'-word (Agile). There is a tendency to use them interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Agile is a set of principles (arguably a mindset) for delivering something which happens to be a good fit for developing digital services. In my view, it could also be applied to policy development. In fact, policy development fits neatly with many Agile principles, such as the idea of iteration, use of data and being based on user needs. When you look at what GDS say is involved in Discovery (the first phase of Agile development) it looks quite a bit like policy development. My contention is that the potential for Agile policy development, coupled with the opportunity for quicker policy delivery outlined in point 2), means we should start to integrate delivery and policy development through the Agile process. Closer working between the two, through multi-disciplinary teams using Agile techniques such as personas and user stories, should result in the development of better services, particularly as you test and iterate in small chunks. It could offer a more collaborative and engaging way of working, including potentially involving external stakeholders in that development process. It may even mean that instead of sending 20 page submissions to Ministers, we take a prototype of a service to them instead.
4) Greater use of data
Digital also offers us a huge opportunity to use data more effectively. ‘Big Data’ has been a hot topic for a while, but it feels like we are still some way off properly exploiting the analytics that we get from a web-based service in the way that e-commerce does. That’s partly because we don’t have enough web-based services yet. But when we do, policy-makers will be sitting on a mine of real-time information about users – where they are located, what websites they went to before and after, what parts of the service are causing users to drop out and a wide variety of demographic information. Some of this will be used to iteratively develop and improve the service, but some can tell you more about your customers/users which could lead to you iteratively developing and improving your policy. Again, this implies close working between policy and delivery, a distinction which is really becoming blurred – if a question on a webform is causing lots of drop outs, is it a case of better positioning it on the page? Or formulating it better? Or asking yourself if it is even really necessary in order to achieve your policy objectives?
5) OK, so social media is useful too
Although I said at the start that this was about more than better engagement through social media – and it is – that doesn’t detract from the benefits that social media can bring. Others have done more work on this than I have, so I won’t say much, but I think that social media can help policy makers reach different audiences and have real-time conversations on a large scale. It strikes me that this could be particularly useful in bouncing ideas around in the early phases of policy development, though you need enough focus to make it worthwhile. However, to do this requires an acceptance of openness and exposure of government thinking that some may not be comfortable with. There is a need for both sides to agree the terms of engagement so the dialogue is helpful and focused on creating better policy. Policy staff need clear guidance and support in order to feel comfortable with this and there needs to be an acceptance of the consequences and potential risks of this approach.
I think that’s about it – it’s probably enough to be getting on with for the time being at least. These are just my views, based on my experience in both the policy and digital worlds. I don’t have all the answers and I don’t know all the barriers, but I’m starting to explore some of these issues within DWP. Whilst I appreciate that some of this won’t be applicable to certain Whitehall departments, it will be for a number and I’d be interested in views of others who may be facing similar issues.