As I’ve bedded into the Open Policy Making Team, I’ve had more and more opportunities to introduce Open Policy Making tools and methods to audiences across Government and Industry. This is a real privilege, there’s nothing like seeing a team’s eyes lit up as they open up new ways into seemingly intractable policy problems. However, it also means you become an expert in some very traditional barriers and limitations to introducing new methods. Working within complex systems, with busy teams tasked with re-inventing processes whilst managing business as usual, we often come up against legitimate and understandable concerns that open policy making is going to add to their to-do lists and place additional burdens on budgets, time and attention before it delivers results.
In fact, our experience of working with the Department for Education (DfE) to gather views and insights about the extra 15 hours of childcare for 3 & 4 year olds has been a powerful example of how engaging a broader range of views through the right partners can effectively close the gap between policy design and delivery from the start, delivering added value and benefits to all those involved.
Additional 15 hours childcare consultation
The policy is designed to help working families; reducing the cost of childcare and supporting parents to work. The beneficiaries of this are not just parents and families themselves. The research shows that a more diverse workforce and leadership leads to better decision making in organisations. This extra help for parents in working families aims to enable business and the public sector to realise the potential of many people who may have been held back from progression by childcare costs and other constraints in the past.
Childcare is a challenge in every developed nation. With more women entering and staying in the workforce gender is no longer a prerequisite for caring about the issue. Personally, as a professional prospective future parent I understand the anxieties of men and women making life choices about childcare that will work for them, providing the quality of care they need for children to flourish. Childcare in the early years must be a caring and happy experience that supports children’s development and gets children ready to thrive at school and in later life.
The Government is committed to extending the current free childcare entitlement for working parents of three- and four-year-olds to 30 hours. Delivery won’t be easy, the childcare sector is already under pressure with few economies of scale - within and across providers - and a continuous reduction in the amount of informal non parental childcare that many adults enjoyed growing up.
The Open Policy Making approach
In order to help DfE implement this policy, the open policy making team have been working closely with DfE and the Cabinet Office Business Partnerships Team to deliver a series of consultative workshops. Our approach has been to address the barriers facing parents by bringing the user voice into decision making on child care and broadening the range of voices we speak to. From our early conversations, it was clear DfE could use open policy making to explore and understand more deeply the issues parents experienced in choosing a childcare provider and what parents thought 15 hours of free childcare could do to meet their needs.
We are also, as ever, interested in how affordable child care is being achieved across the country through innovative and socially led models. This works aims not only to engage parents early but to put into practice some solutions to test the barriers we have found in doing effective consultation with the public, in this case namely parents. Consulting in a more open way both allows the user to have their voice heard and receive more of a follow up on what was done as a result and allows government to build a group of engaged parents who can then advise on key decisions further down the line.
Using insights from Policy Lab and the Open Policy Making Toolkit we designed a way for both qualitative and quantitative information to be generated from a range of parents at scale. By engaging employers and offering parents a variety of ways to input through innovative workshops and a DfE led survey style questionnaire. Large data like questionnaires and surveys give breadth of knowledge about an area and further depth and richness is provided by conversations and interactions with users.
Should we just be maximising the data we get by focusing on surveys and structured interviews? Are creative workshop techniques just a gimmick? Far from it. We believe there is intrinsic value in engaging parents in more creative ways and research into how designers go about their work shows that it is through the act of creation or making that ideas emerge. We asked parents to sketch their ideas. The sketches are annotated by parents to allow the analyst to review their meaning easily. Through these sketches we gained insight from working parents to help understand how to best deliver the additional 15 hour entitlement for working parents using a broader range of ideas.
Actively listening to parents
Central to our approach is meeting people where they are, and providing creative ways into policy questions. To do this effectively for childcare, we knew we wanted to engage with parents through the workplace. We asked employers across the country to run events for staff. Leveraging business relationships was key to our success and we were delighted by the scale and speed of response from employers, bringing extra energy and impetus and providing a platform for over 40 events throughout England.
Despite an ever increasing workload, the team at DfE ran with the ideas we presented and worked with us to embed innovation into policy development in real time. A collaborative approach is really important in insuring new techniques work effectively.
Secretary of State Nicky Morgan and Minister for Child Care Sam Gyimah also attended events, participating and listening to perspectives from working parents. Sam said it persuaded him and his officials to think in a more innovative way about consultation.
If you are interested in this project, keep an eye on the blog. Colleagues at DfE will be uploading key outputs from the workshops.
Senior Adviser - Open Policy Making