#10: It’s the right thing to do

Michael Harris /   June 15, 2012 at 8:31 PM 2,179 views

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This is the tenth in a series of posts on ‘Ten reasons why we need a new approach to developing social policy’, originally published in 2012. The first post in the series can be found here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, the fifth here, the sixth here, the seventh here, the eighth here and the ninth here. In the posts, we argue that social policy should be developed by and with the people who use and provide public and voluntary services.

In this series we’ve suggested that we need a new approach to developing social policy, one that involves the people who use and provide public and voluntary services in the research and development of policy. We’ve put forward a range of benefits that we think this approach would produce – namely policy that is better quality, more implementable, more representative, more inclusive, more timely, more cost-effective, more innovative, and would help to produce the better public services we want. For these reasons, and because it reflects social and technological change, we think this is the future.

There’s one last reason to add to this list: it’s the right thing to do.

Public and voluntary services don’t belong to policymakers or policy wonks. Public services belong to all of us. We pay for them, and although it might not always feel like it, we own them – literally if they are publicly provided services, and figuratively if we rely on them. They’re our GP surgeries and hospitals, our schools and nurseries, our police forces and courts.

More than this, we are all public services. Co-production reveals that the people who use services are as critical to their effectiveness as the practitioners who deliver them. Indeed, services wouldn’t exist without the people who use them – they’d just be buildings and equipment and staff standing around.

All of which leads to the point that it’s our policy as well – not one person excluded. This challenges some deep-seated (but rarely articulated) notions about politics and policy – about who has the ‘right’ to be involved in policymaking and who is sufficiently ‘expert‘ to be brought into the charmed circle.

But when you talk about this idea with people, you often hear some ‘concerns’. These usually start with ‘yes great idea of course, but how would you…’, followed by one or more of the following:

  • …make sure that people will want to be involved;
  • …make sure that they will continue to want to be involved;
  • …go beyond the ‘usual suspects’ who get involved in anything;
  • …manage people who are unmanageable;
  • …manage people’s expectations when the world doesn’t change overnight;
  • …react when you realise that no-one actually wants better social policy, rather what they really want is more funding for their prejudices;
  • …produce policy given that practitioners and service users can’t write (this was actually said to me);
  • …feel when you discover that this kind of approach has been tried before, and by implication, hasn’t worked.

Some, any or all of these ‘concerns’ might be true. Some of them could be considered patronising to what the media refers to as ‘ordinary people’ (i.e. anyone who doesn’t work in the media or isn’t interviewed regularly by those who do). But ultimately, none of these concerns matter.

Even if they were all true, it would still be worth trying to develop a new, more inclusive way to create better social policy – because it’s the right thing to do.

No piece of policy will make everyone happy, but then it isn’t about policy reflecting what practitioners and the public feel, rather it’s about policy reflecting what they know. It’s about policy research and analysis that engages more of the people who know what they’re talking about because they experience the services and issues at first hand. It’s about examining a problem, developing policy options, evidencing the best option, and considering how this option could be implemented most effectively (the kind of thing that few think tanks actually do that often).

Not everyone will be happy with the outcome, but everyone should have the right to contribute to the process. In the main then, as we’ve suggested throughout this series, it’s about harnessing the practical benefits that would derive from the greater involvement in policy work of the people who use and provide public services. But then, even if none of these benefits were realised or realisable, even if there were no other reasons to support this kind of approach, and even if the problems and barriers often seemed insurmountable, we still think it would be worth trying – because it would still be the right thing to do.

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