360-degree policy making

How can we improve policy making to make it more effective — not just for politicians and policy makers, but citizens, organisations and communities too?

One of the defining characteristics of the “digital revolution” is continuous feedback and improvement. The best organisations learn what works and what doesn’t in a timely, efficient way. They update and adapt their products and services on the fly, improving quality and making them more successful.

When it comes to policy making however there’s no consistent way of publicly monitoring the outcome of policy decisions in real time, or understanding how a policy decision in one area — such as education, welfare, housing, the environment, transport, crime — impacts on others.

To paraphrase observations of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, policy making has an opportunity to become more inclusive and effective, to involve:

… a network of stakeholders in which central government is just one player, and local government, individuals, communities and increasingly the private sector are of equal importance … [technology provides the opportunity to] enable effective use of large amounts of information from any source and support flexible and dynamic ways of working

Electronic Government. Information Technologies and the Citizen. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, 1998

Policy making seems a world away from modern organisations encouraging real time participation and feedback, improving the quality of their services multiple times a day. This not only impedes timely social and economic progress, but can also condemn those who most need help and support to years of inadequate services.

So what’s the problem?

Digital technologies provide us with the ability to access, analyse and model public data and processes within and across policy silos — to engage communities and individuals in helping shape and influence their own futures; to improve the evidence base; and to inform policy making and improve outcomes.

When it comes to policy making, however, digital technologies have largely been used as an operational tool, automating top-down, hierarchical thinking and fossilising existing ways of doing things. As I commented in 2008, technology has often been constrained to slapping “lipstick on a pig” — acting as a sticking plaster on current services rather than to help inform, rethink and continuously improve policy making and its outcomes.

“Lipstick on a pig”, from Reinventing government for the Internet age, 2008

Part of the problem is the chasm that can exist between technologists, politicians and policy makers. When we talk of “APIs and data standards” for example, it sounds nerdy, dry and abstract, a world away from policy deliberations, and seemingly irrelevant to the lived daily experience of citizens.

The result is that politicians often mistakenly sideline technology, creating separate “digital manifestos” detached from the political mainstream and focused on issues such as broadband infrastructure, websites and automating existing services. While these aspects of technology are of course important, its role as a catalyst to rethink, enhance and improve policy making — and hence our social and economic wellbeing — often remains overlooked.

360° policy making

I’m interested in exploring better ways of communicating how technology can help us escape outdated waterfall government. It’s important we inform and improve policy making by including communities, individuals and organisations too, enabling them to shape and influence their own futures. We need to engage these essential, but often missing, voices in the policy making cycle.

None of this is a new idea. It builds on a rich seam of current and earlier work. However, we need to find a better way of communicating its importance. We need to bridge the chasm between technologists, politicians and policy makers to help reinvigorate and improve policy making in the digital age.

Technology is increasingly ‘designed for change’, supporting continuous feedback and improvements. These same principles can be applied to policy making too. From ‘Agile Government’, Jerry Fishenden, 2003

The slides below start to explore the idea of “360-degree policy making”. I’m interested in how such ideas can be improved and, most importantly, how they can enter into the political mainstream to make a real, meaningful difference. Alternatively you can open these slides in a full browser window here.


This post is an extract from work currently in progress — hopefully to be published sometime in 2021/2022

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