If the Coalition is serious about open policy, should they let this stand?


Public sector bodies should not duck for cover when bloggers are mis-reported in the mainstream media – ministers and senior managers on six-figure salaries should stand up and be counted.

“‘Working class children must learn to be middle class to get on in life screamed the headline in the Daily Telegraph, stating that these were the views of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s head of policy, Peter Brant. When I first read the Telegraph headline I found the whole thing comical and assumed that it was a quotation from a renegade backbench MP or some former public schoolboy in a right-wing think tank who had been commissioned to lead some outsourced ‘independent’ policy review for ministers.

I generally scan a variety of online news sites daily. I take the view that it’s more useful to know who is saying what across a spectrum of the print, broadcast, online and social media rather than ignoring them completely. During my civil service days I remember reading The Guardian and The Telegraph covering the same story about top university intakes from private schools. The former spun the figures as showing children from state schools being discriminated against, while the latter spun it as parents of children who sent their children to private schools being discriminated against. Both used the same sets of figures.

“It’s an outrage that a civil servant should be telling working class children to be more like Hyacinth Bouquet!”

It’s Bucket. And that’s not what Peter said either. His original blog post is here. Go and read it.

“Read it!”

No you haven’t. Go back and read it again. Then come back.

“Ah…now I see what you mean.”

Reading Peter’s blogpost, it’s written in a style that feels similar to mine. In one sense, perhaps it should – we’ve probably both been through similar training on how to write for the civil service for varieties of different audiences. (Declaration of interest, I have delivered training for the civil service over the past few years). How you write a blogpost is very different to how you would write a recommendation for a minister. Yet the newspaper headline gives you the feel that this is a new government policy. It isn’t. Not by a country mile. Yet what was a very uncontroversial blogpost that simply fleshed out a policy problem has been turned into a political firestorm by the mainstream media misreporting and not linking to the original blogpost – here again if you still haven’t read it.

Peter Brant’s blogpost ****clearly states**** that the issue is a complex one – AND he finishes his blogpost with a question.

“However, tackling this issue is – of course – difficult and complicated and it is far from clear what an effective response to them would be”

“Another helpful thing would be developing a better understanding of what is necessary to help tackle these barriers. Any ideas?”

Coming back to the newspaper headline, that states A) having working class children being more middle class will help them get on in life, and implies that having identified A) as the policy solution, then B) the policy problem can’t be nearly as complicated as Peter suggests. Which is nonsense. Furthermore, Peter quite correctly links to further research done for the institution he works for, and in this very new era of open policy, invites people to respond.

“Open policy – well in theory that’s a good idea, but in practice you can’t do it with the media around”

Please lets not use the phrase ‘In theory X is a good idea but in reality…’ because people all too often confuse it with scientific theory which is ***very different***. See my thoughts halfway down in this blogpost.

Back to Open Policy, the civil service is crystal clear about the move towards open policy making – see their web page here. Cabinet Office has it’s own open policy team with its own Twitter account – @OpenPolicyUK – it follows Puffles! (Like Peter Brant – something I only picked up about half an hour before writing this blogpost – which is why I’m writing it at 1:30am).

Now, I have stated in a previous blogpost the following:

You can’t have evidence-based policy with prejudice-based politics. You can’t have open policy systems with closed political party policy systems.

Peter Brant was quite clearly inviting people for their views and analysis on a complex policy area. He was acting in accordance with the civil service guidance – in fact, he was championing it and setting a splendid example. Write a blogpost highlighting a complex issue, using social media to cast the question widely to people who might have expertise outside the Whitehall policy bubble (I lived in it for nearly five years – it’s a bubble), and see what response you get that can inform the policy in order for you to make recommendations to ministers. It’s in the Commission’s remit.

SMCP Commission is an advisory non-departmental public body of the Department for Education

I’ve been at numerous events in Whitehall and Westminster – and in Cambridge which have promoted evidence-based and open policy-making. Universities Minister David Willetts spoke about the importance of open and evidence-based policy making to an audience at the launch of Cambridge University’s Masters in Public Policy course at the Institute for Government – which I attended. (My local MP Julian Huppert was also in that audience). So Peter Brant is by no means a renegade civil servant stepping out of line. He’s been stung by the misreporting of what otherwise is a sensible and sound blogpost. And he finds himself in the middle of a media firestorm not of his making.

“So…who should do what in response?”

This is where ministers and his permanent secretary at the Department for Education (the sponsor department) should step in – also Sir Bob Kerslake as Head of the Civil Service. What should definitely NOT happen is the following:

When things like this happen, very senior civil servants and ministers should step in and take the media fire. That goes with being on a six-figure salary. In some of my earliest blogposts a few years ago, I called for permanent secretaries and directors general (the top 2 ranks in the civil service) to have much higher public profiles – especially in this social media age. In the next 24-36 hours, Central Government needs to put out a statement robustly correcting the record, and at the same time making a passionate defence of open policy processes.

“What if ministers and senior civil servants don’t do this?”

Then any policy civil servant (like I used to be) is not going to want to go anywhere near blogging about their policy area and engaging with wider audiences lest they get stung by bad press articles. Furthermore, it will provide fuel to the fires of communications directors that take the view that all communications – including social media – has to go through centralised communications teams. That would kill the green shoots of open policy blogging and would probably put the civil service two years back from where it currently is with open policy.

And that would serve no one – and would definitely not be in the public interest.



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