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Open policy making: the new default?

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At the 12 Actions to Professionalise Policy Making one year on event which was hosted by the Institute for Government last week, I said that a lot of activity had taken place in the past 12 months to make policy open, professional and consistent, but that there was still a lot to do.

With the publication of the Civil Service Reform progress report, it is worth dwelling on one of those areas - open policy making. There is genuinely a lot more awareness and debate about it compared to a year ago, many departments are experimenting with new ways of engaging people and drawing on new insights, and we have some very good stories to tell, many of which you can read about on this blog. But have we reached a state where we can say that open policy is the new default, that it is systematically and consistently being embedded across government? No, I don’t think we can claim that: but that’s not to say we haven’t made a good start.

In my view, open policy making is about bringing expert thought, challenge, and innovation into our policy processes, challenging ourselves and the way we prepare policy advice. It is about asking ourselves: how is it that we are in touch with cutting edge, world class thinking and connecting that to implementation so that it is tested in the real world with a greater emphasis on users? Policy that is disconnected from reality, or lacking in details around the practicalities of how exactly it will work, is bad policy. It is also about knowing what tools and techniques are available to do this and when exactly to use them. So really, it is just good policy making; but in an age where the pace of change is rapid - our ability to produce policy advice that is well-informed and creative will depend on how well we understand the world around us and our ability to engage with it.

Open policy making in practice: DECC 2050 CalculatorThe Climate Change Act of 2008 committed the UK to cutting as much as 80% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The Strategy Directorate at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) was tasked with looking at how the country should make the transition to a low-carbon economy. To help policy makers understand the uncertainty and complexity underpinning energy policy, the team built a model of the energy system: the 2050 Pathways Calculator. Although the team routinely used models to inform decision-making before, these were typically used to produce optimal systems. This time the team wanted to build a model that could inform a debate rather than identify a specific solution. The model was developed iteratively with experts, enabling them to recommend changes and challenge the evidence base. It lent the project the reliability and credibility needed to create radical change in energy policy.Many of the lessons learned from the Calculator are now an integral part of DECC strategy and policy. Because it is open, other organisations like National Grid and Friends of the Earth have been able to use it to make their own plans. It has also inspired other nations to develop their own calculator - China, India, South Korea, Belgium and Taiwan have already published theirs, and 13 other countries are in the development stages.The team is now leading work on a Global Calculator to help generate debate ahead of crucial climate change negotiations in 2015 when countries will try to reach a global deal.

This is not just something that I or heads of policy profession should be concerned with. This is for anyone working in policy – or working with policy. Once upon a time, policy making may have been associated with strategy, disconnected from practice and other professions, slow and theoretical. It may have been created in a vacuum with a mindset that Whitehall knows best. If that was ever true, it certainly isn’t any more. Policy is about solving problems – often very complex problems – and the best way of doing that is by learning to listen, engage, experiment and iterate so that the advice we prepare for ministers is world class. This will not happen overnight but there is enough excitement and commitment in the policy profession to draw on new thinking such as user led design as we’re seeing through the Policy Lab, or embracing new technology and up skilling so that we have both the curiosity and capability to up our game.


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