How Puffles the Dragon Fairy persuaded the Public Administration Select Committee to pull up Cabinet Office over risks associated with the outsourcing of policy functions
You can see the headline now:
Magic Dragon Stings Minister!
Well…maybe not quite.
The Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) published its report: Public engagement in policy making. The report is essential reading for anyone interested in open policy, transparency and the use of social media to influence the public policy process.
“Yo Pooffles, what have you got to do with this?”
What was different about this select committee report was its use of social media to crowd source questions to put to ministers. This was the first time I had seen it done explicitly. PASC advertised the hashtag #AskMaude and encouraged Twitter users to submit questions for the committee to put to the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude. So via Puffles, I did.
In a series of tweets, I submitted a series of key points from my blogpost titled Open-sourcing vs outsourcing. This stemmed from an event at the Institute for Government featuring Sir Jeremy Heywood, Sir Bob Kerslake and Francis Maude, the tweets from which I was following on Twitter. It was at this event that the idea of outsourcing policy functions was first raised publicly in March 2012. This was picked up by The Guardian that ran with this story in its Public Leaders’ Section. The main point I picked out was that there were a whole series of risks associated with outsourcing of policy functions – in particular around propriety – that needed to be addressed first. I recommended via Puffles that the committee needed to put these points to ministers. Fortunately for me they did.
The first dragon fairy to be appear in Hansard?
Kelvin Hopkins, the Labour MP for Luton North put the following to Minister Francis Maude:
There are a couple here from someone called @Puffles2010, who sounds like an insider to me because of the questions. “Have you done a risk analysis exercise on the outsourcing of policy? What were the top risks and how will you handle them?” [PASC – Minutes of Evidence 28 Nov 2012 – Scroll to Q231]
The response from the Minister astonished me.
I do not think there are any risks. What risks would there be?
Unfortunately Mr Hopkins failed to drive home the point – instead choosing to move onto a further question. Fortunately, Bernard Jenkin, the Chair of PASC did – asking a further question I submitted via Puffles:
@Puffles2010 also tweeted, “#AskMaude how will you ensure transparency and propriety on outsourcing of policymaking functions?” How do you decide which think tank to throw money at? [PASC – Minutes of Evidence 28 Nov 2012 – Scroll to Q235]
Maude was non-committal – a few people saying that this gave them the impression he had not been well-briefed for this evidence session. Following the session, I posted a quick blogpost on my initial thoughts, and what PASC needed to do next. Interestingly, the BBC picked up on this – covering the session in a short news item.
Supplementary evidence from the Cabinet Office
Several months later, I checked up on whether Cabinet Office had followed up Francis Maude’s offer to provide further written evidence. It’s always worth doing this if following a particular select committee in detail because things can often get buried here. If a question is not fully answered here, it may never be as a committee often has to move onto more pressing things. But harnessing the network of social media users interested in a given policy area means there is often someone willing, able and expert enough to keep watch on these things and raise them as necessary. Which is what I did here. See the final paragraphs of Cabinet Office’s written responses to Qs 235-242. Did they answer the questions around risk?
Fortunately for me, I was able to tip off PASC over this. By that time, both the PASC Twitter account and a third of its committee members were following Puffles on Twitter. I pointed out that ministers had not responded at all to the issues of risk, and submitted an electronic copy of my initial blogpost on open-sourcing vs outsourcing highlighting what those risks were.
The top recommendation in the summary on the report’s webpage says it all:
All policy making carries risks: a lack of appetite for participation, disappointment arising from unrealistic expectations and the dominance of vested interests. Government must frankly assess and address these risks in relation to open policy making. [See here – just below the heading “Participation”]
In particular, recommendation number 7 in the report’s conclusions follows through the points I made in both my blogpost and in the tweets via Puffles:
All policy-making carries risks and the risks in open policy-making need to be accepted and addressed if it is to succeed. A failure to do so would exacerbate problems such as a lack of appetite for participation, disappointment arising from unrealistic expectations and the dominance of vested interests. They require appropriate measures to be put in place to mitigate them.
The Government should undertake a risk analysis of open and contestable policy-making proposals in every case. This should set out the steps that will be taken to address the key risks identified. [My emphasis]
Thus we have an early example of how social media can be used to influence the policy making process. The result of this is that Cabinet Office are likely to have to do a more detailed risk analysis, knowing that PASC is likely to come back to them on this recommendation and scrutinise them on the key risks identified.
Not only that, the nature of both this blog and Puffles’ growing public policy following means that what might otherwise seem like a dry piece of public administration that’s not particularly interesting, is seen in a slightly different light. Furthermore, a greater number of people and institutions will be watching to see how Ministers respond.
****Well done**** to the staff and committee members of PASC for taking a risk with social media. There is much that other select committees can learn from your approach. I particularly liked how the committee used the questions submitted in a ‘quick-fire’ manner too – even if it may have meant Kelvin Hopkins wasn’t able to follow through with his allocated questions.