Now that I have finally, finally left Government (after a few unsuccessful attempts), I thought it would be good to reflect on how policymaking has changed over those 12 years.
My first job was in the Performance Management Consultancy Services in the immigration part of the Home Office, based down in Croydon. Fresh out of uni at 21 years old, I was pretty good on Malian literature, but did not have a clue what a ‘terms of reference’, a ‘submission’ or a ‘deep dive’ was. My job was to prepare a monthly report on migration routes so that we could - with human eyes - spot where increases were happening from particular countries through particular visa schemes (e.g. students, spouses, working holiday makers) and identify any wrongdoing. Now of course, that would most likely be done with data science, with computers able to learn from historical data to predict future patterns and identify potential abuse. And the Home Office have an impressive data science capability to do such work.
I don’t think we - in that part of the office - thought much about migrants as people though.
That too has changed, and the Home Office have an increasing number of service designers thinking about how life events such as coming to the country, registering a birth, a death, applying for a passport etc are digitally experienced by citizens and how they can improve it.
This reflects a wider move in Government, of which Policy Lab is at the forefront, of bringing design, data and digital techniques into policymaking. Whereas we used to engage with just with stakeholders, we are increasingly engaging with users and frontline staff, like with passengers for our future of rail project. Whereas we used to consult people once we had a fairly firm idea in our head about a policy, we are now talking to people much earlier on, asking them to help us define the problem, like when we brought in stakeholders right at the start of our health and work project. And whereas we used to ‘pilot ideas with a view to them rolling out’ (as I’ve written in many a strategy document), i.e. succeeding, we are now prototyping ideas (mocking them up and testing them out), accepting that while some might fail, the learning from this will help us create something better, like with our homelessness project.
This has not happened overnight. There have been sparks of innovation all over the place, driven by some amazing individuals. The DECC 2050 calculator which engaged the public in climate change policy, the open data movement which has allowed people to hold services to account (e.g. through crime maps on police.uk), to have better services (e.g. Movemaker which allows social tenants to swap houses) or simply have fun (e.g. using open street map to create towns in Mindcraft) and the Home Office and Design Council’s Designing out Crime programme which created safer pint glasses (that don’t smash when someone throws them) and the re-design of the neighbourhood watch website. There will be countless other examples, and more everyday innovation, such as putting out questions on twitter to get a quick sense of opinion, including images in submissions or setting innovation competitions. These experiments have shown what is possible and inspired others to be creative too.
My first move out of Government (a year after my immigration job) was to the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr). Thinking back, there was many of the sparks there for the approach we are now taking in Lab. We were commissioned by the FCO to do the first ever comprehensive study into Brits Abroad (there was a lot of debate back then about migrants coming to the UK, but little on the reverse - British migrants in foreign countries). With my colleagues Danny Sriskandarajah and Rachel Pillai, we set up a blog to get contributions and stories from emigrants living round the world. We did some very elementary data science, linking four datasets (Labour Force Surveys, embassy registrations, overseas passport registrations, overseas pension claimants) to create estimates for British emigrants in every country in the world, and we worked with Danny Dorling to visualise it in engaging ways. We went out to Spain, Australia, France, the US and Jamaica to do some in-depth interviews with British emigrants to understand their worlds, motivations and challenges. We trained up FCO officials in a further 12 cities to do interviews with emigrants there. And we communicated about it a lot through a collaboration with the BBC. I remember being a very terrified and nervous 23 year old being interviewed about it by Emily Maitlis on the 10 o’clock evening news. So a very fledgling digital, data and design project, which I used to train up policymakers and communicate to a wider audience. A Policy Lab project in the making!!
It now feels like it’s coming together into a movement though. The word ‘prototype’ is not meant with a blank stare, and the then Home Secretary (now PM) even used it in her speech announcing our first project on online crime recording. Thanks to Policy Lab, GDS and the increasing number of digital teams, user needs and personas are a core part of a policymaker’s toolkit. At No.10 a couple of weeks ago we were talking about stories of real people experiencing services rather than “C2D” categories that we might have previously. And the best civil servants probably know as many people outside Whitehall as within it. That’s probably the irony of my journey. My colleague Beatrice asked me why - if Lab was my favourite job I’ve ever had (which it is) - am I leaving now? The answer is that Lab’s openness meant I’ve been exposed to more of what is outside Whitehall and brought in more outside skills to my policymaking repertoire meaning it is easier to move on. But I don’t think it’s any bad thing. Civil servants should be encouraged to move in and out of Government, being curious and seeking out new perspectives. And maybe, just maybe, coming back….