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Rethinking policy making in the digital age


We need a digital infrastructure to support new approaches to developing public policy, writes Jerry Fishenden

The digital age is radically transforming our world, some of it for the better — some for the worse.

One notable development has been the emergence of processes of continuous feedback and improvement. We’ve grown accustomed, for example, to the apps on our smartphones being frequently updated and improved, along with the smartphones themselves.

But where is the same cycle of continuous, timely improvement when it comes to the much more important example of policy making — for everything from welfare to housing, social care to the environment, education to transport?

Governments have a long and mixed track record of deploying technology as an administrative tool, helping to automate top-down policies based on preconceived opinions, or to move forms from paper onto a screen. Few, however, have taken the opportunity to use technology as a mainstream policy lever – a way to gather data, explore and model alternative policy options, and continuously monitor and improve outcomes.

This isn’t a new problem. Last week we saw yet another report added to the sagging bookshelf of historic publications calling for government to make better use of digital technology and evidence based policy making. Yet despite the pandemic and the resulting dramatic shift in the landscape during 2020, policy making largely continues to plod ponderously onwards as if nothing much has happened.

Where, for example, is the rapid remodelling of the impact on existing policy assumptions if even 20% of employees continue to work remotely and flexibly when the pandemic is over? Where is the open, public re-evaluation of the complex interplay of previous policy decisions and whether they remain valid — from where and how best to invest in transport infrastructure, develop retraining and reskilling for those who have lost jobs and businesses, improve accessibility, redistribute economic activity and opportunities more equitably across the UK, implement broadband and 5G infrastructure, or build new homes, schools, utilities and hospitals?

Victorian silos

Just because Whitehall largely still operates in Victorian hierarchical silos it does not mean policy making needs to do so — particularly in an increasingly more complex, interdependent and highly networked world.

Policy making needs to be radically improved, regardless of the inevitable disruption it will cause to our adversarial, yah-boo politics. Technology needs to become an integral part of the policy making process, rather than remaining solely a downstream tool of policy automation, to help evolve a better form of politics — one that embraces evidence and processes of continuous learning and improvement.

Outside of public transport, opening up real time interfaces to public data hasn’t yet happened at any meaningful pace or scale. Where are the live interfaces that let us track and analyse the impact and effectiveness of current policies, services and organisational structures right across the board — helping us to assess their outcomes and interactions, and to explore alternative, possibly more effective options?

Improving the availability, quality and timeliness of data is not of course in itself suddenly going to solve longstanding, complex policy problems; politics has always been as much an art as a science. After all, the visionary prehistoric cave dweller who first suggested moving out of the caves and constructing dwellings closer to sustainable sources of food and water doubtless found themselves challenged by the familiar cynical response of “Oh yeah, says who? Show me who’s done this before. Where’s your evidence?”

Political problem

Opening up and improving government isn’t a technology problem, it’s a political one. It requires committed and sustained political leadership and a deliberate, conscious shift in the way policy decisions are made.

But this is likely to be uncomfortable to those politicians who prefer to remain stuck in the past, indulging in what Alvin Toffler called the “politics of nostalgia”.

After all, when facts and circumstances change, so should policy — which could prove a major political obstacle, particularly when a politician’s ideological preconceptions or those of their supporters are overturned by evidence, or when the media bleat unimaginatively about “U-turns” as if they are inherently A Bad Thing.

Technology can help us to open up, democratise and improve the policy making process. What’s missing, however, is a national digital infrastructure that provides open, real time interfaces to public sector systems, processes and data.

Creating this would benefit all those who want to explore, innovate and improve public policy and its outcomes — across public, private and voluntary sectors, as well as civil society and academia. This same infrastructure would also enable cross-cutting, inter-departmental policies to be explored, evaluated and implemented more effectively across the current, organisation-centric ministerial compartments of government.

Need for consensus

Such a significant and radical programme cannot be technology led. Delivery of a democratising, open digital infrastructure requires a cross-party, long term political consensus and commitment. As with our other critical national infrastructure, it will need to develop and endure regardless of the electoral cycle.

The UK has an abundance of talent and expertise capable of delivering it. What we need now is the political vision, leadership and public sponsorship to make it happen — and finally drag policy making into the digital age.

Jerry Fishenden is an independent technologist and former government CTO, working with the UK and Scottish Governments and various other organisations

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