The 2015 Project: Open policy making is a huge opportunity for charities

Nicola Hughes is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Government. This blog post is part of The 2015 Project – your chance to tell NCVO what our policy priorities should be.

“Too often policy advice draws from too narrow a range of views and evidence, and does not ensure that policy is capable of practical implementation.”

“What has surprised me has been the lack of connection from Whitehall… to the real world and out there on the ground”

The first statement was made in the Civil Service Reform plan, released just over a year ago. The second by a participant in a programme run by the Institute for Government, and the Big Lottery Fund.

Many in the voluntary sector will recognise these sentiments. At its worst, policy making can seem theoretical and distant, confined to the SW1 bubble. But the government is actively trying to open up its policy processes and encourage officials to interact more freely with other sectors. This could provide huge opportunities for charities.

There are a variety of techniques government and voluntary sector organisations use to engage on policy issues, from working groups, formal consultation and lobbying on specific policies, to the more general knowledge and understanding gained through relationships, networks, secondments and exchanges.

I suspect the latter set of activities – what I’ll loosely refer to as ‘soft knowledge’ – often gets overlooked in favour of more tried and tested tools.

Formal written consultation, for example, is a standard way of testing policy options. Responding to such consultations is a bread and butter part of the job for charity policy wonks, but their usefulness as an influencing tool varies considerably. They can be good for setting out detailed evidence and for winning minor concessions. The voluntary sector can provide an important balance of views in a policy agenda dominated by other interests, something I remember from working on debt and regulation during my time at Shelter when the vast majority of respondents to FSA and Treasury consultations were banks.

Yet consultation can sometimes feel like a tick-box exercise for both parties, particularly if it’s badly timed, poorly drafted, insufficiently publicised or about a policy agenda that has already been determined. Status matters too – like it or not, officials don’t weigh all responses equally.

At the other end of the scale is more informal, personal interaction and exchange between the sectors. This sort of relational, soft knowledge is a little harder to measure and a more subtle tool, but I think it adds an important dimension to the relationship between government and the charity sectors. This year, the Institute for Government and the Big Lottery Fund have been running a programme, Connecting Policy with Practice, which pairs up policy makers with practitioners from a range of large and small VCS organisations who deliver services for vulnerable people. Over the course of the programme they are engaging in workshops, visits and action research.

This model offers a different and complementary way of engaging with government to traditional lobbying and consultation. First, it builds personal and sustained relationships between policy makers and people who deliver services. Second, it gets participants out of their normal working environment and exposes them to different ways of working – for those in the VCS to understand the processes and pressures on Whitehall policy making, and for government officials to get out and see how policy plays out in the real world. Evidence suggests that seeing really is believing, and experience based learning that sparks emotional reactions is both memorable and effective.  Finally, this programme creates a meaningful dialogue between the sectors that is different to lobbying; participants are working together to build up cross-cutting lessons on policy and service design that can, over time, help government to operate more effectively.

Effective policy making in government needs a mix of rigorous evidence, good ideas, political understanding and engagement. The government of the future cannot expect to create policy in a vacuum and implement it along a neat delivery chain – the world is more complex than that and getting out there to understand it is crucial. Structured, personal, ongoing and two-way engagement with the third sector should be an integral part of the policy maker’s job.  Charities would benefit from encouraging deeper understanding of their issues they face and care about, at the same time as building a better knowledge of government themselves.

For your chance to tell NCVO what we should be doing in our policy work on working with government, answer our three quick questions.

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