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Opening up the policy process

May 27th, 2008 by Mitch

The UK faces some big issues: climate change, an aging population, changing demographics, global competition, etc. Increasingly, these issues are defying the conventional mechanisms we have for developing and delivering the policy to address them. Policy-making roles within government entities tend to conform to rigid structures and internal cultural norms (i.e who can speak to whom, who can say what to the public, who needs to approve new ideas, etc.). Any others who might wish to participate in the process must first learn to conform to those norms and the oft-hidden pathways into the system.

Tackling, together

These problems can’t be solved with one particular skillset or within one particular department. They require interdisciplinary skills, and the combined efforts of many people working across government, the economy, and society. Those with knowledge might be in a national government agency, or in a local council. They might be experts in a think-tank, or a practitioner with years of experience delivering a service in their community. They might live in a city, a rural town, or even another country altogether. And all of them might have a key piece to the larger puzzle. Only with all of the pieces will we see the puzzle solved.

This is where Web 2.0, or the social web, comes in. Frequently, when we think of Web 2.0, we think of blogs, wikis, and social networks — and this is certainly the case. But Web 2.0 is more than than a collection of internet tools. It is a philosophy. One of collaboration and user-involvement. The idea that through the efforts and knowledge of many, we can tackle issues which far exceed the capacity of one.

Bottom-up and Top-down

In the policy and social arena, this philosophy is being born out in grassroots activity and experiments across society. mySociety.org has been building sites for public engagement since 2003. Involve is an exceptional organisation conducting research and experiments on public participation. Social Innovation Camp 2008 brought together dozens of social media mavens, social entrepreneurs, and practitioners to explore different uses of new tools to address social challenges.

Within the government, there are also signs of change. Minister and MP blogs, ePetititions, and community fora — while perhaps not prolific — are no longer unusual. In the beginning of the year, Jeremy Gould of the Ministry of Justice convened the UK’s first UKGovWeb BarCamp, drawing an impressive array of those within government eager to explore tools for engagement and collaboration. Dominic Campbell of FutureGov has recently been appointed [what is believed to be] the first Social Media Manager for a local council. Tom Watson, the West Bromwich MP and a political blogging pioneer, has recently taken up the post of Cabinet Office minister for bringing more web 2.0 principles into government. Within the opposition, George Osborne has long spoken of the potential for ‘open-source policy’, with the Tories using wiki-like tools to facilitate the collaborative development of the party’s numerous substantive white-papers. In the Americas, a term has even been coined to refer to all of this activity: Government 2.0.

A long hill to climb

However, despite these impressive and rapid developments, much remains to be done. Within the halls of government, a long-standing perception that “information is power” stands as a serious obstacle to collaboration and sharing of information. While the tools may exist to facilitate debate and discussion between masses of people, such debate is often seen to lack meaningful deliberation and balanced participation. Even when great ideas and content do emerge, it can be difficult to present these to policy-makers in a manner which is seen as credible and usable.

To explore some of these questions, polyWonk has recently been asked to lead the Policy 2.0 strand at the upcoming 2gether08 festival. At 2gether08 we’re looking to take on these issues, and do something about them. I encourage you to head over to the 2gether08 site, and comment, propose, challenge, collaborate, and debate. The only way we’re going to get better at working together, is by working together.

Note: This entry has (in essence) been cross-posted on 2gether08.com.

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