Cloud computing is a popular buzz word. It means that the data and applications we use can be hosted anywhere then distributed to us on any device, wherever we are, whenever we want them. It extends one of the most powerful practical applications of the internet, namely letting us do things on our own terms (in theory at least).
Policy doesn’t work this way. Policy is by-and-large a closed shop. If we examine the traditional policy cycle – still the prevalent model in the UK – we find that the only point of connection between government and the public is a narrow window of ‘consultation’. This usually happens towards the end of the process, once the ‘experts’ have made most of the decisions.
It’s not a greatly empowering experience for the public. Nor is it a surprise that trust in government has been consistently falling for more than forty years. The majority of Britons don’t have any interest in taking part in policy making and don’t believe that there is anything that they can do to influence policy.
The internet, social media and the cloud won’t of themselves change any of this. Governments have remarkably thick hides and have been remarkably resilient to pressure to democratise the policy process. Risk aversion and inherent conditioning means generations of policy makers don’t have the skills to effectively engage or the willingness to try.
Society though has changed. Society does engage, if not with government, with each other. Perhaps creating a nascent spring from the winter of neo-liberalism, social media allows individuals to coalesce with like-minded others around issues. Networks are viral, rapidly evolving and temporal. Weak ties mean that people build loose networks of association and through this trust is built across society. This trust is no longer vertical – targeted upwards at ‘authority’ – but horizontal, built upon the values and sense making of the crowd.
So what does this mean for policy making? I believe it has a number of serious and potentially positive implications but also some risks and costs associated with it. Ultimately, I believe that engaging in the cloud can lead to a democratic renewal, although this won’t be instant and much work is required to build levels of trust as well as political and information literacy skills.
The policy cycle can change. Engagement can now occur in different ways at different times, with different stakeholders. That’s hugely powerful. Open data and the third party agents who re-purpose it push information out and, instead of ‘broadcast and capture’, we shift to conversational models of engagement. Above all, social media means that policy makers have never been more able to listen. Sentiment analysis and qualitative thematic mapping of social networks and blogs makes it relatively easy to understand the public mood.
The engagement cycle becomes critically important here and as to adapt. It becomes vitally important to close the circle: Engagement starts with listening, moves on to conversation, responding by summarising what has been heard and then finally acting. Effective engagement is just as much about listening and reporting what happened as it is about asking for submissions and holding discussions. Philosophically, it’s about recognising the policy development must become a process of ‘doing with’, not ‘doing to’.
So far, I’ve talked about the cloud as if I mean it is simply a metaphor for being online, but it’s more than that. The cloud is a repository, toolbox and conduit but this can be combined with offline as well as online techniques. It’s also about aggregation and sharing – levelling the playing field. In the old model, governments controlled the engagement, in the new world, they don’t. We do. Or rather, we all do. Engagement doesn’t have to occur inside government fortresses (digital or otherwise), it can and should occur anywhere and everywhere that people with an interest congregate. The final benefit of the cloud is that it takes you beyond the firewall to where the real conversations happen.
This creates a challenge though as policy makers are not really trained in on-going, more intimate engagement models. It presents issues in terms of the volume of data and how this is to be analysed effectively. And remember, you can’t just consult and move on, the new model requires feedback loops too, so communication strategies need to be enhanced and refined. There’s a risk in all of this that engagement is boiled down to simple quantitative measures but this is problematic; engagement is a largely qualitative process. So as well as changing the inherent culture of engagement, governments need to re-train their staff and employ real engagement specialists.