No 4: See Change – opening policy research to the public

Although Government claims to want our participation and wants us to appreciate its policies, it hides the evidence on which it bases its policies in fat documents and reports that are hard to read and only available free at special events at think-tanks around Whitehall.

If we want participation in politics in a way that goes beyond choice we need to share policy research in a way that engages people and invites their comments, ideas and understanding.

Responding to our consultation? Excellent! Here's the background reading.... (click pic for credit)

I propose that as part of the development of a white paper which is likely to result in a social impact, an ethnographic documentary exploring the lives of those who will be affected should be produced. This documentary would be based on existing research and would allow a more accessible and jargon-free way of engaging with the issue.

Following the television or web broadcast of the documentary there would be a defined period of time for public debate and feedback. The documentary and the public feedback would then be inputted to a policy design meeting at which the policy’s stakeholders could also be present.

The process would bring transparency and participation to an area of government that appears very closed.Numerous governmental organisations, from the Department of Health to local Government, are starting to put more of an emphasis on qualitative research. Organisations are becoming aware of the importance of understanding their users and are commissioning research in order to do so. Yet still, most of this research is kept private or is not designed to be consumed by the public.

By focusing on the existing experiences of the user, or those affected, an ethnographic documentary commissioned from inside government departments, could provide a platform for informed public debate and collaboration between state and citizen in a way that would side-step party-political leanings.

The approach will both qualify and invite comment at the same time: a publicly aired exploration of the real lives of those who will be affected by a policy provides a level playing field for comment and idea generation. To an extent, it also educates viewers in the policy context and so qualifies them to comment. Crucially, it would often bring useful evidence into the process from sources that are not usually involved.

Bringing the public exploration of policy context – from the point of view of those affected – into the process of developing and proposing a new policy could have significant affect on the relationship between government and citizens.  It would allow more creative ideas to come from a wider range of sources and allow a formal and powerful opportunity for citizens to influence government. It would also help to create a mandate which may lead to faster implementation of those policies.

By inviting the public into the process of developing policies I believe we can get better policies and more efficient government.

About Ivo Gormley

Ivo is head of media at thinkpublic where he has lead many projects in the public sector increasing participation in the design and delivery of services. He is a documentary director with a background in anthropology and is founder of the social enterprise the Good Gym. His 2009 film Us Now, about the influence of the web on politics, was screened and broadcast all over the world and translated into 26 languages.
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  • Ajayl Khandelwal

    I completely agree with the main thrust of your argument. The problem with most high level policy papers and strategic documents is that they crowd out opportunities for discussion and involvement. Ethnographic films that capture the experience of service users, their life stories, and their ideas for improving and reshaping services have the potential to attract new audiences to policy making, as well as building the support for change and innovation. However, it may not be possible to make the film politically neutral. For instance, a film that focussed on an individual service user’s choices could end up focussing on “personal responsibility” as the driver for social and individual change; whereas a film that focus on wider social and economic currents, would lead people to consider more complex causes. For instance, Wilkinson and Pickett (Spirit Level), have argued that people are more likely to follow unhealthy life styles in unequal countries, as the poorest members of the community feel inadequate when judging themselves against the richest members of the community. This theory is based on an interpretation of the data from 30 countries, but is hotly contested between left and right wing commentators. So, how would your ethnography, looking at obesity for instance, navigate between these competing interpretations, in terms of supporting a policy discussion? Or to put it another way, does your ethnography need a narrative and casual theory behind it? And can such explanations be politically neutral, and if so, how?

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  • Daniel Winterstein

    Good ideas. But the costs could be prohibitive – a good TV documentary is not cheap or quick. Social media might provide better ways – more fluid and more open – of getting better engagement.

    To play devil’s advocate: One problem with transparency is that the government is often punished for it – even when they are doing good work. Being transparent means letting people see both the good and bad. But the papers (and special interest groups) will only focus on the bad parts. Transparency exposes your mistakes and your doubts – which inevitably provides ammo for sensationalist newspapers.

    Are we the public mature enough for transparent government? If not, what can we do to improve things?

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