Northern Ireland 17th May 2017

NI Open Government Network Blog – Open Policy-making and Democracy

by Connor McLean

Written by David McBurney, NI Open Government Network Coordinator

What is Open Policy-making?

Open policy-making means enabling people to influence and enhance policy during its formulation. An open policy process must involve stakeholders from outside of the usual policy making bubble. It’s not just about canvassing opinions; it’s about opening up the whole policy making process to new techniques, evidence and participants.

Democracy and Power

In a democracy, public opinion should influence policy. But policy is often determined by the private interests that fund campaigns, lobby our representatives and meet with government ministers behind closed doors. The public are marginalised – the bewildered herd are spectators, not participants.

Most of the population have no way of influencing policy. As a result, we have a public disconnected and alienated from institutions. A lack of democratic ownership. Policy is the shadow cast by business over society.

The fact is that public services belong to us. We pay for them, and although it might not always feel like it, we own them. They’re our surgeries and hospitals, our schools, our police forces and courts. Which means that it’s our policy as well – or should be. Of course, this challenges some deep-seated notions about who has the ‘right’ to be involved in policymaking and who is sufficiently ‘expert‘ to be brought into the charmed circle.

The Benefits of Open Policy-making

The benefits of participation in policy-making include: better policy outcomes; better service delivery; more engaged and empowered citizens; and better understanding of and greater trust in government. Social policy would be more credible & more reliable if it was routinely developed by and with the people who use and provide public services. The expertise and experience of those who work at the frontline could help to design policy that stands a better chance of being implemented effectively. It’s not about a better form of consultation, it’s about cooperative problem-solving.

Open Policy-making Commitment

As part of the Open Government National Action Plan, the NI Executive have made a commitment:

“To explore, develop and trial creative and effective open policy-making and public engagement methods and share the learning across government.”

The objective is to embed a culture of proactive and meaningful engagement with the public across government departments to ensure that public input contributes in a meaningful way to policy formulation. One of the milestones is for Government and civil society to co-design a pilot project to test open policy making methodology locally.

Rules of Engagement

A good deliberative public engagement process makes a difference – to participants, to decisions and to policy. The process should be transparent. It should have integrity; be tailored to the circumstances; involve the right number and types of people; and treat participants with respect. It must give priority to participants’ discussions and be reviewed to assess what has been achieved and evaluated to improve practice

Democratic Ownership

As Dr Cillian McBride from QUB says in his paper, Democratic Ownership and Deliberative Participation:

“In a democracy, citizens should be able to view political decisions as, in some way, the product of their collective will… They should be in a position to recognise themselves in their political institutions and to regard collective decisions as consistent with their freedom, rather than as potential threats to it… Citizens who regard themselves as standing in a relationship of ownership to political decisions have reason to respect and uphold these decisions… Deliberative democratic procedures make possible a form of collective agency which allows citizens to reasonably see themselves as sharing in the ownership of the political institutions which shape the context of their lives.”

Useful links

The knowledge-base section of the Involve website has comprehensive coverage of deliberative civic engagement themes:

Michael Harris has published a number of articles on open policy-making on the Guerilla Wire website: