Power to the people: How we can deliver open government

Greater public involvement in shaping, implementing and evaluating policy is a clear goal of open government. Tim Gibson examines how it can be done, as well as its potential to help shape better policy and restore trust in the working of democracy
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By Tim Gibson

21 Jul 2023

Those involved in running the country, look away now. A recent survey by King’s College London found the confidence rate in the government is currently 24%, its lowest since 2009. Parliament fares even worse, with a confidence rate of 23% – equal to its 2009 nadir. Even the civil service, which gets a confidence rate of 49%, could benefit from a boost: the UK ranks in the bottom half of countries surveyed, coming 14th out of 24.

These figures are concerning for many reasons, not least because trust in government underpins the consent that lies at the heart of a strong democracy – a point made by former Independent journalist Richard Askwith, who has some radical ideas about reforming parliament. “It feels as if the trust that people have in our democracy is dwindling,” he says, “because our politicians don’t seem to represent our interests.”

Speaking to CSW shortly before the KCL research is published, on the very day that Boris Johnson gives oral evidence to the Privileges Committee about his accounts to parliament of lockdown-busting events in No.10 Downing Street, Askwith says there is “an urgent need to restore faith in democracy.” His suggestion, set out in his 2018 book People Power, is to replace the House of Lords with a chamber of “people’s peers”. These would be ordinary citizens, selected by a similar process to jury service, who sit for a limited term and ensure public scrutiny of the government, its policies and legislation.

Askwith’s remedy may be radical, but his diagnosis is widely shared. Alan Renwick, professor of democratic politics and deputy director of the Constitution Unit at UCL, offers a similar analysis, even though he doesn’t agree with the people’s peers proposal. “The state of public confidence in how democracy is working is at rock bottom,” he says. “This is harming politicians because they aren’t trusted to get on with their jobs, and it is harming the quality of policymaking because it is a barrier to thinking things through in sufficient depth.”

Renwick’s latter observation will be of pressing concern for CSW’s readers, who have a concern for good policy. A groundswell of opinion suggests the solution lies in greater public involvement in policy design, implementation and evaluation, in the form of so-called deliberative democracy. Which begs a question: how is such involvement achieved?

A continuum of deliberation

There is a continuum of possibilities when it comes to establishing greater public involvement in policymaking, with Askwith’s people’s peers at one end. At the other is a simple form of digital engagement that was favoured by the coalition government of 2010 to 2015, as part of its “digital by default doctrine”. In the 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan, this was held up as a means of improving “the broader policymaking process, through better engagement and consultation”.

In such an approach, citizens are encouraged to offer their opinions about policy via digital platforms. Minimally, this could involve monitoring social media for chat about key policy decisions – a surprisingly fecund area of insight if off-the-record conversations with officials are to be believed. Maximally, it could involve the deployment of interactive software to help citizens understand the complexities of policy formation and perhaps have some role in shaping decisions.

An example shared with parliament’s public administration committee in 2014 comes from the London Borough of Redbridge, where residents were invited to set the council’s budget using a series of graphical sliders that enabled them to adjust the value accorded to different priorities while balancing the books. The insight garnered from such experiments then fed into the councillors’ deliberations, shaping the final decisions they made.

As this example shows, there is a balance to be struck between giving citizens a meaningful role in policy deliberations while recognising that the buck stops with officials and elected members when it comes to delivery. Different forms of deliberative democracy carefully set out the remit given to participants in influencing and feeding into, rather than making, policy.

Take deliberative polling and citizens’ assemblies as two cases in point. The former has garnered great interest, particularly in the US, where there is a lively academic debate about its merits. The latter is growing in popularity in North America and northern Europe, and versions of it are a long-term feature of governance in many developing nations.

According to UK public participation charity Involve, deliberative polling gathers a representative sample of between 100 and 600 people either online or in person. Participants are polled prior to involvement in the process. They are then given information about the issue and put into small groups to discuss their responses. At the end of the process, they answer the same polling questions as at the start. Any changes in judgement are seen as indicative of the likely movement in the general population if given the chance to become better informed.

Citizens’ assemblies go further than this, with the hope of generating recommendations that may go on to influence policymakers. They focus on a specific question or issue about which there is known to be a diversity of opinions. Recent examples from the UK include assisted dying, genome testing in newborns, and the very nature of democracy. A panel of experts gives advice and information to the assembly, which the government’s Innovation in Democracy Programme suggests should consist of around 50 participants who “reflect the wider public in terms of gender, age, locations of residence, ethnicity and potentially other criteria” (see the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government 2020 report, How to run a citizens’ assembly).

The evidence-giving stage is followed by a process of discussion and deliberation, resulting in recommendations from the assembly that speak directly to the topic at hand. These can have a role in shaping policy, if given the chance. As Involve’s director of advocacy and campaigns, Calum Green, says: “To have bite, citizens’ assemblies need to be given the opportunity to inform and influence policy deliberations among elected representatives and officials.”

Recovering nuance

While neither deliberative polling nor citizens’ assemblies are as bold as Askwith’s proposed reform of the Lords in terms of mandating citizen engagement in policymaking, he recognises their capacity to enliven democracy and yield improved policy decisions. “The key thing lacking in much contemporary debate is nuance,” he says. “That’s why direct democracy hasn’t worked terribly well in recent years, despite looking like a good form of citizen empowerment. Referendums typically reduce a big and complex question to something rather simple. Deliberative democracy offers the public greater exposure to the texture of policy discussions.”

Indeed, as Green observes: “Some of the best examples of referendums come after a process like a citizens’ assembly, because these can influence the information given to the electorate and make sure it is sufficiently nuanced.”

Green says a good example of this impact comes in the citizens’ assembly called by the Irish parliament in 2016 and 2017 to consider the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution, effectively outlawing abortion. “Prior to the citizens’ assembly, a ‘yes’ vote in a referendum on this issue would have seemed unimaginable, with just 23% of the electorate in favour of legalising abortion in all circumstances,” he reports. “After the assembly met – five times over five months, with participants from across the spectrum of views on the issue – it voted by a 64% majority in favour of ‘terminations without restrictions’.”

The assembly’s recommendation was taken to the Irish parliament, where it was debated in 2018 and led to the referendum in May 2018 in which 66.4% of the country’s population voted in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment. This was “a close parallel to the vote in the citizens’ assembly,” observes Green, and an “indication of the impact of greater nuance in helping the public reach judgments about contentious issues.”

This, says Renwick, is the greatest benefit of deliberative democracy, whatever version is favoured for the circumstances at hand. “So much discussion around policy takes the form of simplistic headlines that provoke kneejerk reactions. By pursuing more deliberative approaches to policymaking, it’s possible to generate a richer discussion, which also makes people more engaged and more understanding of the pressures the government faces.”

More than that, adds Green, deliberative democracy helps drive equality in policymaking, which is crucial to the wider levelling up agenda: “If the levelling up agenda is to be about who makes decisions and how, not just where money is spent, then integration of such processes into decision making is essential: it brings voices to the fore that are otherwise missing. It lets a wider range of experiences and perspectives influence decisions.”

A healthy democracy

A key benefit of deliberative processes is their symbolic character. They speak of a healthy democracy, and may well enliven engagement in the wider political process, as well as garnering greater trust in elected politicians. It is for this reason that they are valued by the Open Government Partnership, as a sign of an empowered citizenry.

But they are not without risk. For example, a paper shared by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and published in the American Political Science Review in 2019 offers an insight into the use of “village assemblies” in rural India. These assemblies are deliberative democracy in action, providing an opportunity for citizens to challenge and hold elected officials to account, and are enshrined in India’s democratic process.

The research paper establishes the significant impact of these assemblies on shaping policy design and delivery in rural communities. But it also highlights the potential disadvantage of female participants, despite quotas to safeguard their involvement. It notes through analysis of transcripts from the assemblies that women speak less than men, but that female chairs tend to result in more prominent contributions to debate from female participants.

The insight for all such assemblies, regardless of context or geographical location, is simple: even with care taken in selecting participants, there will always be social and demographic dynamics to contend with. That is why Green speaks of the need to develop expertise in deliberative democracy as a matter of urgency for the government. “Organisations like Involve have expertise in facilitating processes like citizens’ assemblies to overcome some of these dynamics, so the government doesn’t necessarily need to develop its in-house capacity in this area,” he says. “But it does need people who know how to procure the right support, and do so at the right stage in the policy cycle, whether that’s design, delivery or evaluation.”

In other words, to quote Renwick, “the government needs to hardwire public deliberation into its policy processes, and take the outputs of such exercises seriously.”

With such hardwiring, there is every hope of attaining a twofold benefit: one, of restoring public confidence in the functioning of democracy and thereby in our core institutions; and two, of improving the quality of policy design, delivery and evaluation. Few would question the value of either.

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