From the archive: Why outsourcing policy is only open to insiders
In posts over the past few weeks we’ve looked at the Government’s ‘open public services’ agenda, in particular the outsourcing of public services, and how this threatens to undermine another Government initiative, for ‘open policy making.’ Open policy also involves outsourcing policy – but this risks repeating some of the problems with outsourcing public services, especially reducing accountability.
We like open policy. We think that policy development has been too closed, to a too narrow set of participants, for too long. We agree with the Government that Whitehall hasn’t got a monopoly on policy expertise, and we support its recent announcement of a “presumption in favour of open policy making, with policy developed on the basis of the widest possible engagement with external experts and those who will have the task of delivering the policy.” In earlier posts we’ve suggested ways in which Government can make open policy a reality.
However, we’re less sure about that part of the plan to “Pilot contestable policy making by establishing a centrally-held match fund which can be used by Ministers to commission external policy development (for example, by academics and think tanks).” If this marks a significant change in how policy is developed (which we have to presume it does), then like outsourcing in public services it raises important issues of transparency, accountability and trust. Just as outsourcing has in some instances undermined the publicness of public services (for example, their accountability to the public), so it could threaten the publicness of public policy by undermining the extent to which it is made in the public interest.
Given our recent focus here on outsourcing, consider this: policy on public services could now be outsourced to organisations that favour more outsourcing of public services. This is more than likely given that so many think tanks are part of the ‘Whitehall consensus‘ in favour of outsourcing. Will think tanks that consistently argue for more outsourcing be commissioned to develop policy that leads to more outsourcing – or will they be automatically disqualified from conducting such work? How about think tanks whose sources of funding are less than transparent – wouldn’t it undermine trust in policy if they were commissioned by government without the public knowing what other interests might influence their research? How would this increase the accountability and transparency of policy-making, at a time when the public’s faith in political institutions is in such marked decline?
We noted in the previous post how some think tanks have argued that lobbies that benefit from increases in government spending should be ignored because of their (self-) interest. The same think tanks have also argued that government should stop funding charities to lobby it for more public spending on their ‘pet issues.’ Logically, the same should hold true for open policy – that government should avoid the risk of underwriting the mutually beneficial relationship between outsourcing companies and those think tanks that take sponsorship from them.
In apparent recognition of these issues, the Government’s plan includes the commitment to “clear contracts – setting out criteria to ensure that the policy being developed is done so in the best public interest, and that it does not favour any bias of the provider.” This appears to accept that some providers will be biased, but that a contract will ensure that this bias doesn’t inform their work – something which is either surely naive or disingenuous. If government wants to ‘build on evidence of what works’ in social policy (another of the themes in its reform plan), wouldn’t it better to commission researchers who don’t have such a tendency to bias, and who instead have a track record of neutral, evidence-based analysis?
Moreover, how does commissioning Westminster and Whitehall-centric think tanks – which are by definition already insiders – help to bring more ‘external expertise’ to policy? If government wants to hear ideas from think tanks, then it already can, and without spending a single additional penny of public money (an efficiency of which Francis Maude would surely approve). For the moment however, this part of the open policy agenda risks policy being developed by the same old insiders, only with less transparency and accountability than it is at present.
It is perhaps indicative then that the first commission under open policy risks further politicising policy development, and that it is being conducted in the traditional closed way. The Cabinet Office is commissioning research into changing the balance between the permanent (and in principle, neutral) civil service and introducing a larger politically appointed element, as in France and the US. Likely candidates for the research have been reported to include usual suspects such as Reform and the Institute for Government, but both have now apparently turned down the chance to bid for the work due to a desire to maintain their “independence.” To some, this might demonstrate that the system is self-correcting – that think tanks recognise the need to maintain their integrity as well – but it also suggests that the concerns expressed here are real ones.
The problem isn’t so much that government has a “virtual monopoly on policy development” (to quote from the Government’s civil service reform plan) – in one sense that’s the definition of government, and anyway it isn’t true. Think tanks, academics, charities and campaigners all develop and propose new policy, and in this sense there’s more than enough ‘contestability’ in policymaking already. The problem is conscious or unconscious collusion among insiders about contentious aspects of public policy without the public also being allowed to participate.
What’s really missing, to quote from the Government’s own proposals, is how to “enable policy to reflect the real-world experiences of citizens and harness public engagement with the policy making process.” That’s not something you’re going to get from Reform or the Institute for Government, or in all likelihood whatever organisation does get commissioned by the Government. It requires a different way of thinking about policy, who can participate in it, and how – something we’re considering in our ‘manifesto’ project, and we’d welcome your thoughts.
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