Local government is used to finger-wagging lectures that tell it to do what it’s already doing.
Whether it’s gold plated local government pensions (funded), joint working (doing lots of it), or supporting activism in communities (been doing it for years), it sometimes seems that the view from SW1 or Wapping is clouded by more than the traffic fumes on the Embankment.
‘Open Policy Making’, announced in a White Paper by Francis Maude, could be an opportunity to cut through the murk, and send some clear messages in the other direction. If Government means what it says, the Civil Service Reform Plan will give councils and residents more power to involve themselves in decisions - and support work on open policy making in local public services as well.
Most of the Plan is about process and machinery - internal reform, skills and terms of employment. However, hidden away in the wiring is “action five”, which is a much more interesting proposition, like finding a full-length crime novel concealed in the middle of the phone book.
Action five says that Government will: ‘Make open policy making the default … [which means] finding the most collaborative approaches to policy making [such as] crowd sourcing, using policy labs, involving delivery experts early in the policy process, and creating cross-departmental teams where Senior Responsible Officers report jointly to departments’.
From conversations in Whitehall, I don’t think many people understand what open policy making will look like, so there is an opportunity for local government to seize that commitment and make the running. This is particularly important because local government, though arguably the principal delivery route for public services, is not mentioned once in the reform plan - the sector has to demonstrate its readiness to participate and the value it brings.
The LGA, professional bodies and individual councils should use the Government’s commitment to make progress in two areas.
First, better policy for the sector. Open policy making creates opportunities for the LGA to extend their existing policy discussion beyond the “traditional local government” areas, and make the sector’s voice - particularly the specialist delivery side - heard more loudly on broader economic and social issues. It’s not just for the LGA to do, though - individual councils, professional groups or alliances of interest (such as seaside towns, or rural broadband champions) can make their case around the table and in an open process rather than throwing press releases over the wall of a Government Department and hoping someone reads them.
Second, a louder voice for citizens and service users. Local government is the public service that can best collate and report the views of service users across a range of areas, and its reach allows it to convene citizen discussions. As providers and commissioners of services, councils and local services have better access to the reality of delivery than many parts of central Government. Moreover, Councils and others deliver services in real places, and can see the conflicts between issues and organisations at the other end of the policy-delivery chain from Whitehall.
Open policy making means working with delivery partners and experts, but Government will need to develop an open policy involvement plan that brings citizens into those conversations, going beyond “normal’ consultation to build a more engaging relationship between citizen and state. This is an area where local government can both teach and learn - there are brilliant local examples of rich and participative decision making, but also too many consultations that involve a 200-page PDF and a comments box.
Perhaps expecting Whitehall to keep its word on openness seems naively optimistic, but nothing will happen unless the sector presses central Government to carry through its promised openness. Local government can show that it is the indispensable voice of delivery expertise, and there is an opportunity to use the next few months while Whitehall is scratching its head and wondering what to do. The LGA and others should work on a common approach to open policy-making at local level, and they could describe or demonstrate what can be achieved with some quick projects.
If we can get the expert and citizen voice heard in policy making, we can hope that in a few years, there will be fewer occasions when local government officers stare at a direction from Whitehall and say “what on earth did they mean by that?”
Anthony Zacharzewski, Democratic Society