For the last year I’ve been head of secretariat to the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England (AHWBE). New Year is a time to take stock and look back on achievements and opportunities, but most of all on what a different job this is to anything else I’ve encountered in the civil service! The AHWBE is a unique attempt to deliver “open government” from within a department. It’s made up of independent appointee members who have relevant knowledge and skills, as well as director-level senior civil servants. So far, so like an advisory group – the unique thing is that the AHWBE is the principal source of Departmental advice to Ministers on all strategic animal health and welfare policy matters. That means policy recommendations don’t go to our Ministers without input from outsiders who work in the animal health and welfare field. The AHWBE’s there to work in an open, trusting partnership with policy officials, providing constructive challenge to hone strategy and work on strategic policy questions.
So who are these external appointees on the AHWBE? There are seven of them, they hold posts in the animal-keeping sector or related industries (i.e. pig industry, beef sector, companion animals, vets etc) and are in contact with our stakeholders on a day-to-day basis. That means they have continual opportunities to gather information and intelligence on how policies are working in practice, which they can then feed back. Using all that knowledge and information, the AHWBE improves the way Defra makes policy on animal health and welfare, ensures a more deliverable policy or strategy, and helps stakeholders to engage with that process.
The AHWBE partly works because it’s been around for a while and had time to bed in – the Chairman jokes that he’s seen Ministers and civil servants come and go and now he’s the main repository of corporate knowledge! The AHWBE was formed in November 2011, and since then it’s:
- Fostered the creation of new networks (such as in the companion animal and horses sectors) and increased the engagement of existing stakeholder groups to develop and implement the Bovine Tuberculosis Strategy;
- Tested and iterated the approach to responsibility sharing between government, stakeholder organisations and animal keepers before and during an animal disease outbreak;
- Adopted new insights into policy by exploring how government actions incentivise and dis-incentivise industry to take action to help themselves (e.g. through the compensation regime);
- Brought in external expertise not previously fully utilised by government that is helping to tackle irresponsible dog ownership by feeding in wide ranging views from canine and feline representative bodies;
- Supported industry to develop voluntary codes of practice for themselves that will be much more agile and effective.
… and many more!
What makes it work for us?
I was new to open policy making when I took on this job and I’ve had to learn a lot in a short time. Firstly, it can only work when there is trust, respect and mutual understanding between the internal and external colleagues; these build up over time and have all been integral to the Board’s success.
As a civil servant there’s a temptation to put all the emphasis on the big set piece meetings but I’ve learned that regular Board meetings don’t make a difference alone; the Board’s chairman, Michael Seals, has regular one-to-ones with senior policy colleagues as he does with Ministers. The Board uses a variety of ways of working (as business need dictates) to incorporate non-executive views within teams. Policy teams ask for AHWBE input – sometimes I have to turn them down because we don’t have enough time and resource to do everything! That’s the real test of success – that the people you’re working with are wanting more.
Can this open approach work in other policy areas?
Yes! (Where there is commitment to work openly and the decisions have not already been taken.) If you were thinking of taking an approach similar to the AHWBE, Michael Seals has some top tips:
- Add value; don’t unnecessarily generate extra work
- Help bridge communications gaps (civil service and external members will use different jargon!)
- Work out what only your group can do and prioritise it
- Build trust and mutual understanding – don’t underestimate how much work you need to put in
- Etiquette matters! External members are not at your beck and call – make things as convenient for them as you can.