There are always going to be multiple versions of more effective working between policy and digital, reflecting the breadth of activity in both disciplines. The space between digital service design and the operational end of policy is perhaps the place where a more seamless joining is possible, and colleagues have already started to envisage how these disciplines could even merge.
For others in other policy officials wanting to become more digital the relatively recent work on open policy making is a good place to start, although this was concerned with a broader question of policy innovation rather than just ‘digital’, and sadly the Cabinet Office team was disbanded in early 2016. The team created an open policy making tool kit with practical tips and illustrative examples from across government, and the team led by Maria Nyberg created the following useful summary of what was meant by open policy making:
To some extent the work of the original unit evolved through its sister team Policy Lab, a small Cabinet Office unit that makes available design, digital and data techniques to policy makers across government. Policy Lab drew on the experience of Denmark’s MindLab and a worldwide cluster of innovation teams, and under the leadership of Andrea Siodmok has contributed its own style and methodologies.
Digital policy making should also draw heavily from general good practice in policy making; the civil service policy profession has been improving training and effectiveness under the lead of its head, Chris Wormald. And the original GDS design principles remain deeply relevant for more general policy makers despite being focussed on delivering digital services.
And in terms of mindset and energy, there is much for policy officials to learn from the organic community around digital public services seen through the meetup culture of GovCamp, TeaCamps, OpenDataCamp, LocalGovDigital and similar. It is striking that there is nothing similar to this from the policy community (could #policycamp work?). There are a few examples of policy innovation communities further afield, although with limited success — for example the early years of Dinobusters in the Dutch government before their parting of ways, and GovLab’s efforts to form an international network of innovators.
So if we were to offer a blueprint for what doing or being ‘digital policy’ in government is, aiming for a government of (and not just on) the internet, what might it look like? What would be its outlook, its practices and scope? Below is a first attempt at a digital policy One Team Government manifesto, offered to help prompt a longer and more collaborative discussion. It is written from the perspective of what being a digital policy maker could look like rather than something that aims to accurately describe the full range of roles across both the digital and policy professions, or of a newly merged single role (though it may be that such a broad perspective is possible). I’ve posted the text on GitHub to make it easier to iterate, and I’d welcome contributions.
One Team Government manifesto — prototype
1. Be curious, practical, reforming
We are reformers. We embrace change and define ourselves against those who are reluctant or fearful of it. We serve Ministers elected by the public and we follow the civil service code.
We are curious. We are familiar with the best thinking and writing of the internet age, and are hungry for more knowledge and experience.
We roll up our sleeves. We mess around with data, code and digital tools ourselves, even though that is not always our day job. This first hand knowledge helps us cut through the hype of new fads and fashions.
We are the future of the civil service. The internet came for retail, finance and the media and it will come for us unless we are prepared. We know it is not okay to be ignorant about how our modern world functions.
We understand that digital changes the fundamentals. We see that digital is reshaping the foundations of society, and understand this affects how we do policy. It is a category error to think of digital as merely a new add-on, something to be considered after core policy work has happened.
2. Have a deep regard for the citizen experience of a policy or service
We are driven by citizen and user needs. We use tried and tested methods to understand the lived experience of the people affected by a service or policy, and to learn what it would take to improve.
We know that government is not just transactional. We serve the collective interests of the country and recognise that government is about more than individuals wanting simple transactional services. Digital channels are just one way to interact with government.
We are grounded. We are policy engineers, we work on applied policy. We are motivated by practical change, not winning abstract intellectual debates.
We consider the wider system. We understand that making improvements to public services often requires looking beyond the remit of a single team or service. Citizens and service users don’t experience government as an individual piece of legislation, service or department.
3. Harness the power of boundless horizontal communication
We look outwards. We are unassuming about the role of civil servants in the policy development process and know there is no monopoly on wisdom. We are in touch with the best knowledge outside government.
We collaborate. We draw together information and share experiences and communicate effectively within our teams and professional communities through digital tools and meetups. We use open policy making processes to engage the broadest input possible in the development of content.
We borrow. We build upon the successes of others and don’t start from scratch unless there is no choice.
4. Embrace the tools and working practices of the internet era
We are as digital at work as we are at home. We make full use of digital tools on the web and we don’t let sub-par government IT, where it still exists, be an excuse to resist reform.
We do the hard work to make things simple. We take pride in moving from complicated underlying situations to achieving clarity of vision and purpose. We prefer simple language because public services are for everyone.
We publish, don’t send. There are often better tools to communicate with colleagues than email.
5. Use data to inform decisions
We use data to drive both policy and services. We appreciate that analytical insight is as valuable embedded within frontline digital services as it is used in its more familiar setting to inform policy choices.
We are alert to new data techniques. We look to data science to find new insights from data, and we consider the value from non-traditional sources of data. We appreciate but do not solely rely on the traditional analytical professions in government.
We make our data available to others. We know that data can soar in its potential when combined. We publish open data and other content in open formats wherever we can, and make use of authoritative registers to underpin our work. Data security and privacy are critical and we use alternatives to bulk data sharing wherever possible.
We draw on a wide range of analysis: We underpin our work with a variety of analytical techniques, including behavioural science, randomised controlled trials, and evidence from academia and the what works centres.
6. Pursue an iterative, agile approach to delivery
We start with a presumption to prototype. We believe reforms to most public services can benefit from rapid iteration, grounded in user insight and a relentless focus on rapid, tangible delivery. When we fail we hope to do it in the right way.
We seek continuous insight. We reject a presumption of multi-year policy cycles, and the notion of a simple linear direction from ministers through policy and then on to delivery. We aim for more than policy work to be just informed by digital delivery, we aim for them to become seamless.
We embrace agile processes to manage our teams and projects. We appreciate practices that reinforce strong team communication and iteration, and not just for digital teams but for any situation where uncertainty is expected.
We get stuff done. We subscribe to the JFDI school of government, over wait and see. We would rather learn by doing than acquire theoretical knowledge.
We are OneTeamGov. We reject a hard barrier between our professions. By bringing teams together to work in a truly multidisciplinary way we can offer better services to the public, give better advice to ministers, and make the civil service more effective and efficient.
A conclusion, for now
The policy profession still enjoys a privileged position in government at the side of Ministers, but there is a chance that this pre-eminence may come under threat from digital disruption in the coming decade. Rather than leading to a tension or competition between two differing perspectives, the nascent bottom-up One Team Government movement in the UK civil service show that there is appetite from many in and around government for these worlds start to flow together in a more seamless way, and in parts even merge.
The pace of digital change can be unsettling, but it is incumbent upon all civil servants to be better informed about the changes going on, as Janet Hughes at DotEveryone has said civil servants and others should understand digital technology just like they have to understand money, HR, or the law. Not to be experts — just to have a basic understanding:
It is somehow still socially acceptable for leaders to say they don’t understand the changes that are being brought into our lives by digital technology, as though its some kind of niche topic that only specialists need bother themselves with. Digital technology isn’t niche — it affects most aspects of our lives, and most aspects of the strategy and operations of most organisations.
The best way for policy officials to learn to be more digital is to just go and work with the large and growing community of digital colleagues in and around government. But there are other resources available to help: for example the 100 government blogs and this crowdsourced reading list specifically designed to enable policy people to dig deeper on digital.
Yet it would be an error for the policy profession to think about digital as just another form of expertise to add to the already long list of competencies that policy officials are expected to be aware of in the course of their duties. Digital is a disruptive technology that is changing the fundamentals of how our society works; software is eating the world. It would be a category error for policy officials to think about digital as just another consideration at the end of their submission, or as something that is only relevant if proposing a new digital service.
The policy world has been moving towards increasing expertise for many years. Elements that used to be part of the generalist’s role, such as operational delivery, communications, programme management and commercial expertise have become professionalised. Rather than undermine or weaken the policy profession, in this further moment of change we are faced with an opportunity to better clarify and celebrate the core policy skill set — and for all its disruption the digital community is in deep need of these skills.
Saying we know what policy is when we see it just isn’t enough any more for the credibility and self-respect of policy officials. We should be embracing the digital side of policy and offering the policy profession’s unique insights into these new systems and ways of working from a position of strength. It is time for us to move more confidently out from the shadows (where even our basic ‘how to’ guides on policy are hidden behind password protected firewalls) to create a more open, forward looking and collaborative culture and set of skills. Engaging in the One Team Government community and events is just the start.