|Clouds: a metaphor for our increasingly connected lives, apparently. Photo: Jhttp://www.flickr.com/photos/48813704@N02/5740160774/in|
Since attending my first Political Innovation event earlier this month I’ve been thinking about the potential new technology such as social media and other digital engagement tools have to transform the way policy is made.
So far , much of the debate has tended to focus on how technology will change the way policy professionals (politicians, civil servants and assorted policy wonks) engage with citizens from static consultation windows to a more dynamic, conversational form of engagement. You can read a good summary of these developments by Dr Andy Williamson on the Political Innovation website.
While any progress towards a more conversational form of engagement in policymaking should be celebrated, I feel in our excitement to ‘do’ crowdsourced policymaking we must not lose sight of the need for an attendant increase in policy literacy. Without us as citizens having a mature understanding of the wider context in which policy is developed and how our views on different issues relate to each other, there is a danger that new technology will simply add to the ‘noise’ which already surrounds policymakers.
By way of a practical example, the Health and Social Care Bill highlights the need to do more. Putting aside my personal views on the Bill and the Government’s motivations for introducing it, so far my engagement has been limited to re-Tweeting messages demanding the Government drop the bill and (after being prompted to do so by people I follow on Twitter) signing an online petition and template letter to Number 10 to the same effect. Arguably new technology has helped keep me informed of breaking developments and allowed me to be mobilised as part of well-run political campaigns. In of itself, however, it has not resulted in me truly engaging with the substance of the Bill and the finer points of Health policy.
I believe there will always be limits to the extent to which we as citizens will want to or feel capable of engaging more deeply with the policymaking process, not least of all because of the time and effort this would entail. Nonetheless, there are some simple steps we can take to help us as a society increase both the quality and not just the quantity of citizen engagement in policymaking:
1. Increase the accessibility of policy information
In a previous lifetime I was strategic lead for Disability Equality for a local authority. This experience brought home to me the challenge of explaining often complex ideas and information in ways that people can understand yet retain their original substance. While Government departments do publish Executive Summaries and Plain English guides to major documents, large swathes of policy documents remain impenetrable to the average bod. If we are serious about achieving a shift to a more conversational engagement on policy, as a minimum we must ensure citizen have access to the information they need to understand and engage with complex issues.
2. Provide citizens with the tools to understand how their views relate to others
At the last Political Innovation event Steph Gray provided a round-up of digital collaboration tools that can enable citizens to play an active role in developing policy. Writeboard, for example, allows a people to write, share and revise a shared document, working together to agree a shared position on a particular policy. Before we get to this level of engagement, however, I believe there would be value in us at citizens understanding where our views sit in relation to other people. For example, if we as citizens were able t to know that our position on a policy issue was firmly in the minority, we would have a more realistic view of what our contribution to engagement exercises is likely to achieve. We could also choose to take steps to persuasive work to build support for our position, rather than ever-more loudly proclaiming our position across a range of online platforms to anyone who will listen (and those that won’t).
3. Provide citizens with tools to understand their personal outlook
Most of us (not me, obviously) are a tangled mess of fuzzy thinking and contradictory priorities. For example, through the process of online engagement I could signal to policymakers that I wish to see the Health and Social Care Bill dropped and, in the next breath, express my dissatisfaction at the lack of choice in Healthcare (not my personal view I hasten to add). By creating more opportunities for engagement, there is a danger that these contradictory impulses further de-stabilise the policymaking process, thus reducing people’s faith in the democratic process.
Moving forward, I see value in applying the principles which underpin online collaboration tools to help citizens get a holistic view of their outlook on life, as reflected by their position on different policy issues. Using online surveys citizens could gain a clearer understanding of which issues they feel most strongly on and how their views differ from issue to an issue. For example, at the most basic level, a survey might tell an individual they are broadly liberal on social policy issues such as Equality and Diversity yet more conservative on wealth redistribution. In my view, having a better understanding of oneself would enable citizens to engage in policymaking in ways that are more productive and coherent for the political system as a whole.
Over to You
As I’ve already stated, most of us are a tangled mess of fuzzy thinking. I’d love to know what you think about policymaking and the role for citizen engagement within it. Do you agree with me that political literacy is an important if we are to reform policy making? Or maybe I am a product of my background and my time working in policy has made me overly cautious about the potential for citizens to be involved in the policymaking process. Whatever your thoughts, please do get in touch – you’ll be helping me make my thinking just a little less fuzzy.