#7: Policy would be more diverse and inclusive

Michael Harris /   June 12, 2012 at 8:31 PM 2,471 views

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This is the seventh 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 and the sixth 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. We’ll re-publish the whole series over the next few days, and we welcome your comments.

With more voices able to participate in policy research and development, policy would include more perspectives beyond the ‘usual suspects’. Policy would better reflect who we are.

That policy would be more representative is a good in itself, but a much more open and participatory approach to policy development would also greatly enhance the range of intelligence that informs policy. Policy would better reflect the reality of providing and using public and voluntary services. Let’s deal with these two points in turn.

Firstly, democracy and representation. The policy world, including think tanks, can be exclusive and elitist – not because they are designed to be, but as a result of a set of implicit assumptions about who is able and willing to participate in policy issues, the ‘correct’ language to use, and an often competitive style of policy debate and discussion. In short, policy and politics is highly off-putting to a great many people.

Commentators often describe low turnouts at elections as a symptom of ‘apathy’, but it’s not that we’re lazy. To quote from the film Slacker: “Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy.”

The problem is that we haven’t yet adopted and popularised an appropriate and accessible set of mechanisms that enable mass participation in policy development. Many of the required mechanisms already exist; what’s missing is the desire to use them. There’s a much larger constituency of people who would be involved in policy if the opportunity was presented to them in the right way – for example through a community-based approach, by creating a place to share and consider practical intelligence on the policy issues that are closest to people.

The debilitating apathy, we would suggest, lies instead with the established political class and their reluctance (and resistance?) to experiment with some of these participatory decision-making mechanisms in order to try to establish a new legitimacy for our politics.

Secondly, a greater diversity of voices in policy would greatly enhance the range of intelligence, insight, experience, expertise that informs policy. Progressive businesses have recognised that there’s a strong business case for diversity and that this goes well beyond the glossy corporate recruitment brochure. Politicians have often urged companies and the public sector to be more diverse; they should do more to ensure that the policymaking for which they are ultimately responsible is similarly more representative of who we are.

We need to develop a way to enable more organisations to conduct and contribute to better policy and research based on frontline expertise, experience and insight. This means the organisations that are typically excluded from policy such as smaller charities, but also individuals as well – the lone practitioner or service user who wants to contribute their perspective to policy but currently doesn’t have any way to do this. This would also increase the amount of (practical, tested) innovation and creativity in policy (the subject of the next post in this series).

History suggests that, one way or another, people eventually find a way to be heard. The new social movements of the 1960s and 1970s – for racial equality, women’s rights, gay rights – were (and continue to be) calls for recognition, acceptance and participation. But what’s remarkable about today’s sense of marginalisation is how widespread it is, and just how many of us feel ourselves to be excluded by the political system.

When the majority feels like it’s on the outside, those on the inside need to recognise the dangers of complacency. Much greater diversity, then, isn’t just a ‘nice to have’ – it’s now critical to better policy development at a time when better policy development is critical, and to the sustainability of democracy when our democracy is looking increasingly unsustainable.

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