Are organisations hotwired to look towards central government?


Does the existing policy-making process mean that the public shout from afar at politicians, while wealthy and/or connected interests butter them up out of sight?

Quite an inflammatory summary, isn’t it?

Deliberately so. The stop-start nature of policy-making in the UK, along with the ability of wealthy interests to buy seats next to ministers/senior politicians (look at the ‘sponsorship opportunities’ at party conferences next month and you’ll see what I mean) has helped bring the policy-making system to breaking point. The economic crisis of recent years aside, one of the other things that’s helped bring the existing model to breaking point is people’s use of social and digital media.

One of the things a number of Conservative activists that read this blog are concerned about is campaigning charities. It’s something that often comes up in pub and coffee conversations – us Cambridge local government types all live in the same bubble you see. Anyway, all things regarding campaigning charities are likely to come to a head with the Second Reading of the Lobbying Bill – as a blogpost on the charities’ umbrella body the NCVO explains here.

In particular, the large corporate charities have adopted similar behaviours to those of big businesses as far as lobbying is concerned – and with good reason: If this works for big business, why can’t it work for charities and campaigning organisations? Thus we’ve ended up with a sort of policy-making model where each policy area will have a competing group of ‘stakeholders’ that will attend meetings in Whitehall with civil servants – and sometimes ministers too, in order to thrash things out.

“Why can’t we be invited to these meetings?”

More to the point, how do you become a ‘key stakeholder’? It’s more of an art than a science. There’s also just as much a case of ‘how much damage could said organisation do to our policy objectives if they are not involved?’ as anything else. My issue in this increasingly connected world of ours, is that the current system does not allow public scrutiny of the views and representations of key stakeholders prior to decisions being made. This is despite the fact that we now have the technology to do it.

“Won’t publicising the submissions of the key stakeholders lead to millions of ill-informed views being expressed, creating more work for civil servants? And won’t such stakeholders try to ‘game’ the system anyway?”

No and yes.

The nature of micro-policy, of which I did lots of during my civil service days, is as such that much of the general population won’t have the combination of the time, the expertise nor the desire to give it the levels of scrutiny that the stakeholders give these things. Remember, central government consults continuously and on ***lots*** of things. Have a look here. No one in their right mind will have expert knowledge on every single thing the government is consulting on.

What matters for me is that for each different area, there are likely to be a handful of people who are passionate, knowledgeable and public-spirited enough to give the submissions made by key stakeholders the scrutiny they deserve. The sad fact is that policy officials in areas with powerful vested interests are often out-gunned by the resources the latter can bring to bear. The use of consultants too has shot to pieces a fair amount of the corporate memory that exists within Whitehall – especially some of the technical expertise.

The advantage of ‘crowd-sourcing public scrutiny’ of submissions from key stakeholders is that it automatically means the latter has to respond. That can either be via their own means or when a policy official puts the points made in such scrutiny to the stakeholder concerned. We’ve already seen how Parliament has demonstrated the effectiveness of this. The Public Administration Select Committee crowd-sourced questions via Twitter in its inquiry into public engagement in policy-making. The result? MPs put a series of very targeted questions (including a number from Puffles) to ministers that they might not otherwise have come up with. When ministers failed to answer the questions properly, they were quite rightly criticised in the select committee’s final report. (See the full story here).

The main point I want to make is that I think it will be useful for Whitehall policy-makers to observe the exchanges between the vested interests and lobbyists – irrespective of who they represent, and members of the general public that choose to scrutinise them. Rather than having all conversations having to go through Whitehall and the civil service – almost as if they are referees in a debate, why not open policy up in a manner where vested interests & lobbyists have to account for themselves publicly? That might bring some much-needed scrutiny & public accountability to individuals and organisations that currently receive very little.


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