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Opening up policy

Posted by on March 1, 2013

House of Commons

James Lush, Policy Manager at the Biochemical Society, discusses whether policy making is becoming more open

The question “do we know what is desirable in open policy making?” was one of the opening gambits at the Experts, publics and open policy event held at the House of Lords on 15 January. Sir Roland Jackson, Chief Executive of the British Science Association (until April), said that broad participation is vital for openness in policy-making. But how can this be incorporated into the current processes without relying on anecdotes? And how do we know that the views of the people who are asked (or, more problematically, put themselves forward) are representative? There is, of course, more than one public.

There are signs that government is becoming more open. For example, the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee is to start live tweeting some of its evidence sessions. Stephen McGinness, the Committee Clerk, has said it is possible that the Chair will pick up questions from Twitter and encourages people to watch sessions live. However, we must be careful about the ways in which policy processes are opened up. In order to be democratic we need to touch hard-to-reach publics (an aim also shared by the science communication community, indeed a judging criterion for the Society of Biology Science Communication Awards). Online-only initiatives like mySociety are great, but I’d be really interested to know who they are reaching. Furthermore, it is possible to play lip-service to the open policy agenda. As Nathaniel Tkacz of the University of Warwick has written: “to endorse a ‘closed’ politics today would be unthinkable” (not to say that ‘closed’ politics isn’t happening).

Fundamentally, we don’t really understand whether, say, members of general publics would be interested in scrutinising or helping to direct, for example, the allocation of funding for basic research. But perhaps policy-making could benefit from social science experiment. As Gemma Harper, Head of Social Research at Defra, pointed out at January’s event, qualitative research cannot be labelled as ‘anecdotal’, although there is a genuine challenge in how to integrate its lessons with those of other disciplines. This is an example of where the ‘evidence divide’ may be found, about which Steven Hill of RCUK has recently written. Dr Harper said that when the public are interested, they can be used in helpful ways, a recent example being in the generation of crowd-sourced information on ash dieback.

Opening up policy-making to allow engagement with experts is a separate issue. A new GO-Science publication, ‘Engaging with academics – A guide for policy makers’ (PDF), encourages policymakers to engage with academics via secondments, placements and fellowships; commissioned research (debatably falling into the trap of aiming to produce ‘evidence for policies’ by stating that this can be done “to build the case for action”); and networks. We also shouldn’t forget that there are around 12,000 scientists and engineers across government departments and agencies already.

This is a snapshot of some of the debate and considerations currently being processed around the issue of opening up policy-making, with a particular emphasis on science. But on the whole, it appears that we are moving away from the solely technocratic use of science in government, and also leaving the ‘paternalistic’ DAD (the decide, announce and defend) type of policy-making behind.

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