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Open policy making isn't just about the experts

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When the Head of the Policy Profession, on this blog, states that ‘open policy making is about bringing expert thought, challenge, and innovation into our policy processes’ it seems churlish to say ‘yes, but what does that mean?’. Expertise, and who counts as expert, is an important part of the picture, and it’s useful to think about it.


The role and potential of the reasoned public voice is still neglected alongside that of the traditional ‘expert’, except perhaps in the context of user-led design (still in its early days in government). It is particularly telling that no mention is made in the blog post that the development of the DECC 2050 calculator, given as a case study, was informed by non-expert public deliberation alongside the equally essential role of the expert scientific modelling, in a project supported by us at Sciencewise. The problem may lie with the word ‘expert’ or ‘expertise’. While the question of expertise is important, the value of broader public dialogue is to surface other relevant perspectives, priorities and values, which might be hidden or under-valued by going purely to established ‘experts’. This is primarily what the type of public dialogue supported by Sciencewise does, along with ensuring relevant stakeholder expertise and knowledge is involved and accessible.


It may be obvious that public involvement is important and useful in helping shape service delivery, and that users or potential users do have expertise that is likely to be directly relevant. It is perhaps less immediately obvious in the case of substantive policy issues. Yet it is here that a public voice can be particularly valuable, not least since traditional processes of consultation tend only to elicit the committed stakeholder positions.


But what can the members of the public, supposedly average and uninformed, actually contribute? Experience suggests: quite a lot. We all live in society, and we bring our different experiences and values to bear on issues of the day. As is evident from examining Parliament itself, it is not deemed a requirement in our society even that the lawmakers be expert on the issues on which they are debating and deciding. Groups of ordinary members of the public, selected to be broadly representative of diversity, can provide insights of great value, not just in Parliament. They can prompt questions and ways of looking at issues that may not have occurred to the experts caught up in the debate. They enable one to penetrate well beyond opinion polling, to understand not just what people say they think but how and why they think it, how they might consider trade-offs, and what might stimulate them to think differently. It is frequently reported by subject matter experts, in public dialogues that Sciencewise has supported, that ‘non-experts’ helped distinguish the wood from the trees, and that they are perfectly capable of making sense of complex questions with scientific dimensions when they want to.


So if, as a policy-maker, you think it might be valuable to hear what a reasoned public voice would say, alongside your formal expert consultation, take a look at the case studies of deliberative processes that Sciencewise has supported, and contact us if you would like to explore it with us. We would further argue that this process does not just have the instrumental purpose of improving a specific policy but has the broader objective of widening democratic involvement and debate; a true ‘open policy making’.


Roland Jackson is Executive Chair of Sciencewise. You can follow him on Twitter and you can also follow Sciencewise.

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