News 3rd December 2012

National Action Plan theme: Participation and open policy making

by Tim Hughes

Where: The Open Data Institute

When: 29 November 2012


On 15 November, members of the Cabinet Office Transparency Team and the civil society network met to scope out the areas of the UK’s next open government National Action Plan. Four areas were identified based on the UK Government’s priorities and the civil society network’s vision for the Open Government Partnership:

  • Extending the principles of openness and transparency
  • Moving forward the global agenda on openness and transparency
  • Participation and open policy making
  • Anti-corruption

A document was drafted after the 15 November session, based on the civil society network vision, that sets out some examples of policies and issues that the civil society network would like to consider under each of the themes.

Over the coming weeks, a session will be on each of these areas in turn to begin discussions with relevant policy makers regarding the policies and commitments that could be included under each. A schedule of these meetings can be found on the Open Government Partnership UK website.

On Thursday (29 November), we began with a session on the participation and open policy making theme. The following sets out the general areas of discussion, rather than providing a verbatim account.


The session was attended by Sophia Oliver (Cabinet Office Transparency Team), Ilaria Miller (Cabinet Office Transparency Team), Chris Barrett (Cabinet Office Open Policy Making Team), John Williams (Cabinet Office Community Organisers Programme), Simon Burall (Involve), Tim Hughes (Involve), Tim Davies (Southampton University and Practical Participation), Deirdre McGrath (London Voluntary Service Council), Paul Bumstead (independent), Andy Williamson (Future Digital and associate at Involve), Susie Latta (Demsoc), Graham Gordon (Tearfund), Anthony Carpen (Antony Carpen Public Policy & Social Media).

Four ways participation and open policy making relate to the UK OGP

Four different ways that participation relates to the Open Government Partnership in the UK context emerged from the session. See Tim Davies’s blog for his thoughts on this.

(1) Participation and data

This includes building the capacity of civil society groups to engage with open data and changing the way in which government publishes data in order to enable effective participation (e.g. by adopting the five stars of open data engagement).

(2) Participation beyond open data

The majority of the time participation has no link to open data. There are opportunities here to find and build on examples of innovative practice in participation and open policy making happening both at a national and local level.

(3) Civil society and citizen participation in the UK’s OGP process

The development of the UK’s National Action Plan is itself an opportunity to put participation and open policy making into practice, experimenting with new methods and using the process as an example to others.

(4) Celebrating participation practice at the 2013 plenary

Participation needs to be on the agenda at the 2013 plenary, with the UK taking a lead on communicating its importance globally.

Linking to the work of other government teams

We identified the potential of linking the Open Government Partnership with the work of other teams within government to celebrate the work that’s already taking place and to take it a step further. As a start, members of the Cabinet Office’s Open Policy Making and Community Organising teams gave introductions to their work:

Open Policy Making

The Cabinet Office’s interest in open policy making came about through the development of the Civil Service Reform Plan. The Minister for the Cabinet Office is clear about the need to draw on a wider range of inputs in the policy making process to ensure that policy is effective and can be implemented.

The Open Policy Making team is currently working on developing models of open policy making and mapping where innovative examples are happening across central government. One way that open policy is currently being considered is it being about openness at three different levels:

  • The evidence that informs policy making
  • The approaches that are used to address problems
  • How problems are defined

Community Organising programme

The Conservative Party became interested in the idea of community organising and the success it had achieved in the US prior to the last election. A commitment was included in the Coalition Agreement to train 5000 Community Organisers. Since then, Locality has taken on management of the programme which is recruiting and training 500 community organisers, who in turn recruit and train a further 9 organisers each. Organisers are hosted by local voluntary and community organisations. They work with local people on issues that matter to them and support them to take action.

The link between national and local

The discussion of these two areas of the Cabinet Office’s current work led into discussions regarding the links between the local and national. It raised questions regarding whether and how the experiences and stories of community organisers at a local level can be connected back to the national level to feed into policy making as one example of the issue.

There was agreement that in general there’s a need for a knowledge sharing or management process that enables the aggregation of information upwards and downwards, creating a feedback loop between the national and local levels. This would enable policy makers to pick up on issues that are experienced across multiple communities – suggesting a higher level policy question – and seek policy solutions for them.

Linked to this were questions regarding who and how government should engage at a local and national level respectively and how discussions at these levels can be linked, which in turn led on to talk regarding the scalability of participation processes. It was suggested that large group engagement processes do not work well because they lack the intimacy of small group participation, and so there is a need for an approach with lots of small scales conversations that can be cross-pollinated and aggregated upwards to the national level. This was likened to an action research cycle.

There was also discussion regarding linking local government with the OGP. Questions were raised about how local government can be engaged in the OGP and how central government can support local government with regards to participation and open policy making?


Another theme that arose from the discussion was centred around who participates (i.e. who has the resources and opportunity to do so). Concerns were expressed that a model of open government that assumes that increased government transparency or open data by itself leads to increased citizen participation, will only benefit certain groups of people, who already have a high degree of power and social capital. Linked to this was the issue of digital exclusion.

Developing a pilot

There was a general sense that developing a pilot to demonstrate the potential of participation and open policy making would be a good area of focus.

The process of developing the National Action Plan could itself be an example of participation and open policy making in practice. The experience of the civil society network and Cabinet Office Transparency Team working together on the Open Government Partnership in the UK has so far been extremely positive. It was suggested that this could lay the foundations for increased trust between government and civil society in the future. However, there’s a need to broaden civil society engagement in the process beyond those already involved.

There was also discussion about the potential of focusing on one specific policy area to develop a tangible example of participation or open policy making in action. It was suggested that there could be a competition to select the policy area. However, it was highlighted that the issue of politics must not be forgotten and it would be important to work with a minister who is signed up to engagement.

Therefore, it was suggested that a better approach would be to test ideas with a number of Ministers to find one who is ready and willing. It will also be important to find a policy at a sufficiently early stage of the policy making cycle and ensure engagement is not blue skies, but answers the “how would it work in practice?” question.

How we go forward

A number of areas for further work came out of the discussion, including:

  • Develop the narrative of the draft document further in line with the discussion
  • Learning from previous policies in this area
  • Mapping what’s already happening
  • Connecting with local government and local elected representatives
  • Collect ideas for potential policy areas to pilot new participation and open policy making approaches
  • Consider ways to celebrate participation at the 2013 plenary
  • Return to the theme for another session in early February 2013
  • Look for events (or consider holding one) that brings together policy makers, academics, civil society and practitioners to consider what works and what doesn’t in participation and open policy making.
  • Consider ways to involve Parliament or Select Committees