What does good open policy making look like?

In this series of blogs, Siobhan Farrell will be discussing the state of open policy in 2015. We’ll be discussing what impacts it can have, what the criteria for good open policy are and who is doing it well. In our last post, we talked about what open policy making means and why it matters. This time, we’re talking about what good open policy making looks like.

As discussed in our last blog, open policy making is a difficult term to define precisely. Every policy designed in the open concerns a different subject matter and involves a unique set of people – and this means that every attempt at open policy making looks different too. Unsurprisingly, this also means that it’s pretty tricky to define what good open policy making looks like.

Whilst success criteria do exist, open policy making is not a tick box exercise so there isn’t a hard and fast rule about what elements need to be included to make it ‘good’. Each instance requires a unique approach. There are also many lists of practical methods and techniques which decision makers can use to make their processes open.

Making it easier for people to participate

Fundamentally, an open policy process must involve stakeholders from outside of the usual policy making bubble. There are many ways of doing this: from participatory budgeting to open design processes, from internet consultations to world café style discussion events.

Good open practice removes barriers to participation. This means providing multiple platforms for citizen voice, and going to where citizens are already talking to actively seek input. Accessibility is key here, and basic steps – such as providing easy read documentation, and ensuring that meetings are held in wheelchair friendly buildings – are really important. This may also mean holding meetings away from the formal structures of decision making which can be off putting for people who aren’t used to them.

It’s also key for good engagement frameworks to mitigate the risk of existing power relationships being replicated within participatory spaces. That is to say; that participation efforts should not be dominated by “the usual voices”, and everyone should be free to speak and challenge honestly.

Acting on what is heard

Listening. Photo credit: Paul Townsend

Listening. Photo credit: Paul Townsend

Perhaps most importantly, good open policy making must act upon the evidence which is garnered through such efforts. After all, there really isn’t a lot of point in putting time, energy and resources into hearing what people have to say, if nothing happens as a result!

In short, the starting question for evaluating success is: can stakeholders engage in an appropriate way with the policy making process, and effectively influence policy in a way which makes it better informed?

Going further

Advanced open policy entails making an entirely open process the norm, from start to finish. Not just bringing people in during the consultative stage, but getting them involved in framing the question before it’s set and involving them in real world testing once a policy has been drafted.

As a really innovative step, the open government partnership recommends that governments prototype to find new approaches to citizen engagement. The public themselves can be involved in designing and testing these new approaches.

Of course “good” is a really subjective term. What is good for one, might not be good for another. Efforts to make policy openly should reflect the wider contemporary context. In a setting which is used to closed decision making, any effort to widen participation should be celebrated. But in a setting where open policy is the norm, more innovative steps should be required. It’s a case of continuous improvement.

Innovation. Photo credit: Missy Schmidt

Innovation. Photo credit: Missy Schmidt

Listing success criteria in theory is one thing, but actually implementing them is another. In our next blog, we’ll be looking at some real world examples of open policy.

Got comments, suggestions or ideas? Let us know what you think by commenting below!

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