Publications on the internet
CORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 663-i
House of COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE the
Public Administration Committee
public engagement in policy-making
Tuesday 13 November 2012
David Babbs, Stephan Shakespeare and Tom Steinberg
Roger Hampson, Catarina Tully and Professor Beth Noveck
Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 88
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
This is a corrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.
The transcript is an approved formal record of these proceedings.
Taken before the Public Administration Committee
on Tuesday 13 November 2012
Mr Bernard Jenkin (Chair)
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: David Babbs, Executive Director, 38 Degrees, Stephan Shakespeare, Founder and Global Chief Executive Officer, YouGov, and Tom Steinberg, Founder and Director, mySociety, gave evidence.
Q1 Chair: Good morning and welcome to this first evidence session on open source policy-making. Could I welcome our witnesses, and ask each of you to identify yourselves for the record?
Tom Steinberg: Tom Steinberg, the director of mySociety.
David Babbs: David Babbs, director of 38 Degrees.
Stephan Shakespeare: Stephan Shakespeare, CEO of YouGov.
Q2 Robert Halfon: In essence, the kernel of this inquiry is to see how the Government’s digital engagement can move from being a very good encyclopaedia of information to being a Wikipedia, where people have genuine engagement. How do you think the Government has progressed so far?
Tom Steinberg: I have been watching the field of both this Government and many others as they have tried to use new technologies to listen to and engage with the public for more than a decade. The scorecard is pretty poor, but not really just here; it is essentially largely everywhere. The primary failing that we have had is lots of experiments that are skin deep, by which I mean: "We will set up a website here to ask people about X," but behind the scenes the processes remain largely unchanged, which is very common.
It is very unusual to see even the very modest step that happened here in Parliament: agreeing to have debates when a certain number of people sign something. That counts as a relatively big achievement in terms of form or process change that frankly would not have happened without someone building an internet tool that was participative in nature.
David Babbs: I asked 38 Degrees members what I should say before coming here and how positive they felt about efforts to improve engagement online and more generally. I think they would agree with a verdict of patchy, probably leaning towards poor. There is a sense from 38 Degrees members that both technologically and culturally there is a very long way to go before the Government gets anywhere near getting the most out of public engagement, either in terms of legitimacy or the quality of the resulting public policy.
Stephan Shakespeare: I think the words and the intention of Government are clearly in the right direction here. The acknowledgement about open policy-making is to be welcomed; you know that the people behind this believe and care about it. But a while ago, although still within this Government, there was a Cabinet Office consultation on public service reform. They wanted to change everything, and said, "Here is a place you can input," and it was a box. In one sense it is incredibly open to say, "Look, anybody can come to this box and say what they think," but it has no understanding of practical ways to get people involved. So I would echo what the other two have said. There is an intention and it is clearly positive, but it has not happened in any real sense.
Q3 Robert Halfon: Where should the Government begin to introduce new open models of policy-making? Are there areas of policy that are easier to do than others?
David Babbs: My sense is there is a prior challenge before you talk about specific models, which is around a culture of flexibility in terms of being able to consider public engagement and be innovative in what you do. To give you an example, I was delighted to be invited to speak at this Committee, and I think our members felt very positive about that. I saw that immediately because the culture of 38 Degrees is an opportunity to find out more about what our members would like us to say. However, because of the way Select Committees are set up at present, it was hard to determine exactly what the questions were. Your clerks were very clear that it was not within their gift to give me a clear sense of exactly what lines of questioning you were going to pursue, although they gave me useful general guidance. The timing of it meant that it was hard to do as much with our membership as I would have liked.
It is an example of good will, but within a very old fashioned way of doing things, which meant that the scope for actually trying to do it in a different was very limited. Before you can get on to individual mechanisms, you have to think about what the culture underlying it is: why people want to engage and whether there is flexibility to improvise a bit. If you are going to get a really good quality public engagement, it does need an element of flexibility and improvisation, because it is a conversation with people and that is how conversations work. Does that make sense?
Q4 Chair: Yes. How much time would you have needed?
David Babbs: Probably about a week more, and a little more detail as to exactly what you wanted to know from them.
Q5 Chair: The questions in our Issues and Questions paper tend to be how and what and why questions rather than the kind of binary questions one would use in large-scale surveys. Is that an unfair point to make?
David Babbs: Slightly, yes, in that it is possible to ask open questions as well. Indeed I did, and have got word clouds, text mining, analysis and example comments that reflect what people said. Is it possible to engage with large numbers of people in a more qualitative way and get data from that, but it does take a little longer to do properly. I have not had time to read every individual comment, for example, but I have had time to read representative samples and run it through software to get stuff out.
Q6 Chair: So is your message that, if we are going to do this open source policymaking, it is all going to take longer?
David Babbs: I am not sure that overall it is about length of time. It is more about an overall approach, and at what stage in it you are thinking. You could have met on the same day, but you would have just needed to give me slightly different information and leadin. I am not sure that is the same as slowing down the overall process. Obviously I would then be sitting here able to give you higher quality insight, which would probably be a good thing.
Q7 David Heyes: I should maybe have declared an interest, Chair. I am a member of 38 Degrees, or at least on the mailing list, which is all that is needed to become a member; I think it is as simple as that.
David Babbs: That is correct.
Q8 David Heyes: You referred to your membership to kind of legitimise the questions, the role and responses you might give to this Committee today in the same way that politicians refer to their electorate to legitimise their position on things. I do not recall being asked by you for any views. I would surely have noticed if you were asking me as a member for comments on your appearance before the Public Administration Committee. I do not remember you asking me.
David Babbs: No, we did a random sample on this occasion.
Q9 David Heyes: A random sample?
David Babbs: Yes, we asked quarter of a million out of 1.2 million people, simply because we did another survey just a couple of weeks ago, which you probably may recall getting because it was sent to all our members. It was about us being interviewed by the Sunday Times Magazine. We asked them to do that, and felt we were bombarding people with surveys.
Q10 Chair: What was the response rate?
David Babbs: To this survey?
David Babbs: About 25,000 people responded.
Q11 Chair: Is that enough?
David Babbs: It is the lower end of what we had hoped for, which reflects the fact that we had just sent a survey the week before, which had over 100,000 responses.
Q12 Alun Cairns: Can I come back to your comment in relation to bombarding people with surveys? Let us assume that every Government Department changed its process; would that not result in you bombarding people with surveys day in, day out?
David Babbs: I guess the point is that it is opt in. Those that wished to had an opportunity to do it. As to whether we should have sent that email to everyone rather than a random sample, I guess this comes back to the culture of experimentation in the organisation. We are still learning how best to engage our membership in decision making, and we are unfettered by all the traditions and processes that you have. The point is, though, we are still feeling our way, and the technology is changing very quickly. That is the underlying point that I am getting at: you need to have an environment in which you can think about it in that way.
Q13 Alun Cairns: Eventually, though, would we not end up in the same place? You are using a new and innovative approach to the consultations that currently take place, but if demands are being placed on you or groups like you time and time again, the same people will have the fatigue in terms of responding to those sorts of surveys, and we will end up in the same place as we are now, where maybe the response to consultations is not that great.
David Babbs: Overall we find that among 38 Degrees members, who obviously are not the whole population, but are 1.2 million pretty mainstream people, there is definitely appetite for more engagement and more ways of being involved than is currently the case. When we asked that question, 95% of our members felt that Government would make better policy if more people were involved in decision making. They have taken the trouble to list a number of ways in which that could take place. The underlying assumption behind 38 Degrees when we launched was that there are a lot of people who would be described as apathetic very often, but if you create institutions that work and allow them to get involved, they will. The number of people who have participated indicates that that narrative of apathy is probably exaggerated.
Q14 Chair: We must keep our answers relatively short, and I would like the other witnesses to contribute as well.
David Babbs: Sorry.
Chair: That is perfectly all right.
Q15 Lindsay Roy: You use the terms "engagement" and "consultation" as if they are synonymous. Is there a difference? It has been put to me that "inform and engage" is to tell people what is happening; "consultation" is to seek their views.
Stephan Shakespeare: Engagement is people being involved, and consultation suggests some kind of formal process. I think there is some difference there.
Q16 Lindsay Roy: So being involved in a passive way in terms of engagement?
Stephan Shakespeare: I can be engaged in something if I am reading a newspaper and get angry about it. I am consulted if you ask me for my opinions. I find the word "engagement" is so widely used and bandied about that it does not have much meaning. Everybody talks about engagement and it is not very helpful. For me, the important thing for us to do is to distinguish between a consultation that is done because you feel it ought to be done, and a consultation that you do because you want it. They are very different things, but they are both valuable. You have a right to be heard perhaps, and therefore you create processes by which people can be counted and make their views felt. But if you actually want people’s opinions because you think that they have different experiences that will contribute to making better policy, then you have to think about the process very differently. When we look at processes for consultation, we first have to look at what the demand side is. Is it in fact a process that says, "We do this because it is democratic," or is it because we want to find something out? The moment you really want to find something out, the processes become different and start to suggest themselves.
Lindsay Roy: I will come back to you later on that. I am interested in gesture politics.
Q17 Paul Flynn: When the Prime Minister was giving his speech on Hillsborough, there was a group of civil servants recording every tweet made during the course of the speech. If he found that things were unfavourable, he could have changed the end of the speech. Having made a speech last week in Westminster Hall, there were 20 tweets before I reached the end of the speech, which was about 40 minutes long. This is a situation we have never had before. There could be a danger that this will give politicians what they crave in the main, which is the drug of perpetual adulation from the public, but it will lead to awful decisions. The best Government we had was the Attlee Government, which created institutions like the health service and the welfare state, which have endured for half a century. Are we not in danger of appealing to the lowest common denominator of tabloid-informed public opinion and creating policies that will endure not for half a century but for half a day? We are going into this state of ephemeral instant-appeal politics that actually degrades the political process.
David Babbs: I feel that I should answer that one. I think 38 Degrees members would fundamentally disagree with you.
Q18 Paul Flynn: I am one.
David Babbs: Sure, okay. It is a broad church, but overall I think a value that brings most 38 Degrees members together, and I meet with and chat to them about it, is a sense that politics is too important to just be left to professional politicians and, overall, decision making is improved by more people being involved. In our short life as an organisation, we could point to several examples of that happening. Take for example the proposals to sell off England’s forests. Even DEFRA would now acknowledge they were seriously flawed. Without the public speaking out and engaging in that process, the "for sale" signs would be up now. Even though 38 Degrees members still have grave concerns about the Health and Social Care Act, we would point to ways in which that Act was improved by the process of the public speaking up, which prompted a listening exercise that pushed for amendments to that legislation.
Q19 Paul Flynn: Isn’t politics too important to be left to Daily Mail readers?
David Babbs: I would be happy to arrange this, but if you met a selection of 38 Degrees members-maybe some have come to see you in your constituency-I am not sure you would characterise them as knee-jerk or representing the views of a particular newspaper.
Q20 Paul Flynn: I am afraid 38 Degrees will have diminishing returns because they managed to terrify Conservative MPs into cowardly giving up on what they believe beforehand because of the volume of complaints. When they get used to the fact that a group can be built up on almost any issue, they will not surrender quite so easily if 100,000 emails are sent to MPs. While I appreciate the point you are making, we cannot go on appealing to large groups of people to respond instantly. I mean someone twittering is far more powerful than someone voting in many cases.
Q21 Chair: Are MPs all meant to become walking opinion polls? Mr Shakespeare? Can I also just declare a tangential interest? My wife is a shareholder in YouGov.
Stephan Shakespeare: I think there is a mistake here in getting involved in the outward forms of some things technology allows us to do. Technology simply makes concrete and reach further what was being done before. People talk to and influence each other the whole time. You make your decisions as an MP, I would think, at least in part by what you think your electorate wants, and your electorate contains all the people that you suggest might be amongst the despicable groups that should not be listened to. How you distinguish those is entirely up to you at any time. Nobody requires you to look at the twitter stream. I think you would be crazy if you did look at what the tweets were saying in the middle of a speech and change your mind. I do not think there is any suggestion whatsoever by any sane person that the fact you have technology that allows communication to be much faster, much more complete and inclusive means that therefore you should stop thinking, filtering and making judgments. I cannot imagine where such a notion would come from. It certainly does not come from any advocate of democracy.
Tom Steinberg: There is a useful little piece of historical context here. In the very early days of the web, by which I mean the early 1990s, the very, very first people to comment on the potential political impact were by and large Californian libertarians. So a very, very small group, possibly four or five people, set a tone that said, "If one is interested in the interrelation between the political system and the internet, one therefore must believe wholly in direct democracy," and we must race as fast as possible towards evening television shows where we vote on who to execute. That was a tone set by half a dozen people. I am not saying everyone one is a staunch Burkean, but in my organisation what my colleagues would seek from politicians and their relationship with the rest of the country is that you have the tools and the information you need to do your jobs brilliantly. We are not really seeking profound constitutional change, but there are uses of technology that might help you to improve. We have a couple of very different examples of how that might be here, but the connection between direct democracy and the internet was a one-off that I do not believe has much currency today.
Robert Halfon: It used to be asked why millions of people voted for X Factor but never voted in elections. The recent stats show that actually X Factor is on the decline. Fewer and fewer people are voting in X Factor and the celebrity jungle thing and all those kinds of programmes.
Paul Flynn: There’s a a good reason for that.
Kelvin Hopkins: Don’t tell Nadine.
Q22 Robert Halfon: I will specifically address this to Stephan. Given that roughly a third of the population currently take part in civic participation, how do you encourage them to do so? Do you think that the majority of the British population want to get involved in political engagement, or do they just want a Government that gets on with the job?
Stephan Shakespeare: I think it depends on the issue. If you are looking at changing the parking regulations in your street, people can get very engaged. Even there, though, where I live, when there is a community group and there is change, people are usually happy but do not all attend the meetings. They really care about it because it really matters to them, but they are quite happy to leave it to a minority of their fellow citizens they trust to do it. People make those decisions. Having low turnouts does not mean they do not care. If they thought it mattered or they could have an effect on something, they would get involved. I am not worried about the fact that you have low turnouts for some things and high turnouts for others. It just reflects the different levels of their feeling that they know something and have something to contribute.
Q23 Robert Halfon: Are the people who get actively engaged online always the same kind of people? For example, if I have a public meeting as an MP, I know that a lot of the same people there will go to every public meeting. Is that the same online? Are the people who get engaged online always the specific kind of people who always get engaged online? How many new people come in and how many of them get burnt out?
Chair: The 38 Degrees members in my constituency are becoming quite familiar.
David Babbs: Some probably are, but overall when we ask our members if they have previously participated in a campaigning activity or written to their MP or those kinds of things, about two-thirds tell us that they have not and it is a new experience for them. I think that does indicate that a combination of online technology and a different organisational approach can involve new people in the process, and in ways they find empowering, enriching, and that make them wish to do more.
Q24 Robert Halfon: Is there a danger of quantity not quality? For example, I may get 200 emails on beak trimming of hens, and it is all the same email because it is done and you just put your name and postcode on a computer. Then when you speak to the individuals-if I meet them in the high street-they cannot even remember sending me the email. So they have filled out the form without necessarily taking it seriously. Just because they have sent an email that takes them 10 seconds to fill in, is that really digital engagement? How do you make that kind of thing a reality?
David Babbs: With respect, most of our members find that assumption by MPs-that they do not really understand the issue and have just done something because they were asked to-increases their levels of grumpiness and dissatisfaction with the political process. It is quite good for 38 Degrees as an organisation, because it motivates them to get more involved. That is an example of the need for cultural change underpinning everything else. My sense is that you should not need to earn the right to contact your representative by writing original prose and making it difficult for yourself by writing longhand. It is fundamentally a good thing that more people can get in touch. It is legitimate, though, to ask if that is the limit of what people do.
The work that 38 Degrees has done on the NHS over the last year, which I am sure lots of you have received lots of correspondence about, is a good example of that. Hundreds of thousands of people got involved in a legislative process for the first time through that campaign. Over the last few weeks, 38 Degrees members up and down England have been organising gettogethers in their local area to make plans to engage with their local clinical commissioning group and take an interest in the formulation of their constitution. So we have seen people going on that full journey from not knowing about something, to signing a petition online, to contacting their MP for the first time-in many cases discovering the name of their MP for the first time-right through to a growing number of them meeting up in their local community and engaging with the clinical commissioning group process.
Q25 Robert Halfon: I am not saying I disagree; I just want to tease this issue out. The fact is that all they have to do is spend 10 seconds filling out their postcode and a letter gets automatically sent. Then the MP gets 500 of exactly the same thing that you have drafted for them. Is that really digital engagement?
Tom Steinberg: This is an extremely familiar question to me sitting in this room, because many, many years ago we were commissioned by Number 10 to build a petition site. I was asked by one of your colleagues, "What kind of engagement do you call that-signing your name and ticking?" My answer was, "I call it very low engagement. It is the lowest and easiest kind of engagement that has ever been invented within our democracy, and if I can make it easier, I will." Why is that? The internet allows for something that was never possible in the era of television, newspapers and other things, which is to take a fractional, micro, tiny engagement and build on it. So you sign a petition once. The Government can write back to you, at which point a second thing has happened in your life. You report a broken street light; the local government can tell you whether or not it is fixed.
In the era that I grew up in, with television, I have very early memories of the miners’ strike. That was the beginning of my political education. I was too young to really know about the issues, but that fractional involvement is how you all became involved in politics. None of you woke up one morning and said, "I am going to read Rawls’ A Theory of Justice," or whatever. The way you went to the second step probably required your families or your education system to follow up what you read in the newspaper or saw on TV, or what you overheard over the dinner table, which required that there be people in your environment to do that: your parents talking about these things, or your school talking about them. Someone from a completely apolitical household who signs one of David’s letters and sends a letter that may not seem fundamentally, profoundly meaningful to you may well be making their first action, and he suggested that was the case in very large numbers. If he stopped there, then I think your condemnation would have some value. But what makes working in this field worthwhile for me is the possibility that the internet provides to follow people up and to push them up what I call a ladder of engagement. The lowest levels are fantastically valuable, but only because you can create this pathway. Stephan does this as well.
Robert Halfon: I am not condemning it. In fact, as David knows, I agree very much with the concepts. I am just trying to ask about and understand the issue.
Q26 Paul Flynn: We read something that you wrote, Tom, in the year 2000, about the MPs and their communications on websites in particular. Are we better? Has there been improvement? I know the best way of communicating with my constituents and the rest of the country is to get expelled from the House of Commons. It was the most successful thing I have ever done. I know if I resigned my seat, I would come back in with 80% of the vote. Is this a better thing to do than slaving away on websites?
Tom Steinberg: A document from the year 2000? I am afraid I was a child, and I do not entirely remember the content of that. Certainly, with all of you, it is not so much that you have become good or bad at living with the internet; you do live with the internet. You have no choice; it is now as much the oxygen of Westminster as voting in green leather seats. Has the entire political class therefore become, generally speaking, better? Yes, I think the gentleman to your right tapping away there is a great example. That would have been unimaginable a decade ago. I hope that answers your question.
Q27 Chair: Can I just move on? There are surely a lot of people more willing to engage in this sort of thing than others. If you are designing a universal credit, for example, the people you need to engage are the people who are likely to be receiving the benefits, but most people who talk about benefit reform are people who do not receive benefits. Am I misunderstanding something here or betraying an ignorant prejudice? How do you engage with people at the customer interface, so to speak, about how people are going to behave when you reform the benefit system?
Stephan Shakespeare: I would say this, wouldn’t I? High-quality opinion research is really helpful there, and has an important role. If you are relying entirely on people coming forward, you will of course be inundated with people who have a particular angle. That may be very valuable, and I think they should be listened to as well, but they would not necessarily be representative. For consultation to be credible as well as effective, you need to know whom you have listened to and how they relate to the people you have not listened to. So you can use opinion research to reach people who are answering because they have been paid to answer or because you have knocked on their door and it has become very easy for them. That is the way that you talk to people that you did not think to talk to, and get everybody’s opinion.
Q28 Chair: If we are talking about people who choose themselves, the burning platform metaphor is being used. Motivating people to protect something that they feel is under attack is your speciality, isn’t it, at 38 Degrees?
David Babbs: Not exclusively. One thing that is maybe worth emphasising here is I know that you as MPs will experience disproportionately a very specific part of what 38 Degrees members do, which is contacting their Member of Parliament about an issue of legislation. To give you a couple of other examples, 38 Degrees has been working with academics at the University of East Anglia on this AshTag app. A couple of years ago, 38 Degrees members stopped the forests being sold off. We are not particularly happy to hear now that all the ash trees are dying, so we are looking at practical ways we can help the efforts to track and measure the spread of that disease. Another example would be 38 Degrees members clubbing together to negotiate with energy companies to drive a better bargain, so there are other forms of action. The way that our members hopefully see 38 Degrees is as a vehicle to aggregate their views, to come together and have a say in issues that affect them. That can be a defensive campaign about stopping something being cut or sold off, sometimes it can be about the positive action of citizens, and sometimes it is about campaigning in favour of things. It really is a mixture, and the underlying ethos is that people can get involved and change things positively.
Q29 Chair: When inviting all these opinions, is it important that everybody is aware of the conflicts of interest that might exist? For example, I do not think 38 Degrees was motivating people to engage in the health reforms if they were supporters of the reforms, or if they were supporters of selling off the forests. 38 Degrees seemed to have an opinion of its own that it was determined to get others to promote. Was that not your objective?
David Babbs: In both those cases, the campaigns were initiated by our members suggesting them to people in the office team.
Q30 Chair: But you have to agree with them personally.
David Babbs: To be honest, in terms of the forest issue, it was not something I was aware of.
Q31 Chair: I appreciate that was not very difficult, but that was your view, wasn’t it?
David Babbs: The role of the 38 Degrees office is to serve our membership. Our campaign on the forests was launched after I checked our Facebook page one Sunday morning. There had been an article in the Sunday Telegraph that day, and a lot of people had posted about it. There was an unusual number of people; I am used to engaging that way, and I realised there was a lot of energy around it. So I re-posted it and asked people what they thought. I got a huge number of replies all in one direction: saying this was a bad idea. On the Monday we polled our membership and asked if they wanted to campaign against this, and the response was both unusual in its volume and energy, and overwhelmingly hostile. That is why we launched the campaign. I became a very passionate supporter of that campaign largely because I spent an awful lot of time travelling round the country meeting local 38 Degrees members.
Q32 Chair: Okay, can I just cut to chase with something else? You also supported the campaign to change our voting system, but that obviously did not engage your members as intensively as the forests, for example. Nevertheless, that was the campaign you decided to support.
David Babbs: That is not quite true. After the general election, we polled our members the following day and asked them what they would like to do. At that point they voted to campaign for proportional representation, so that was what we did. Later on we polled them on whether or not they wanted to take part in the AV campaign in either direction, and they said no. So at that point, much to the frustration of some of the people we had been working alongside at the point when our members had prioritised it, we did not campaign for a yes vote in the AV referendum. We did something we always do, which was to remind people on the day that there was a vote happening and suggest that they might want to get down to a polling station. We also provided information on how to register to vote earlier than that. Correct me if I am wrong, but I am pretty sure we did not issue anything saying, "Vote yes to AV." We did not do that because our members did not want us to. I personally did support Yes to AV, but it is not up to me.
Q33 Chair: Can I ask the other two witnesses what they think the message of this part of the conversation is for Government on open source policy-making?
Tom Steinberg: The question you posed that led to this was the benefits example: "We need to know from groups," which is quite different from this because it is the difference between the public wanting you to know something versus the Government needing to learn something off the public. I wanted to talk about this in answer to the question before about which are the relatively easy ways to go and what are the relatively low-hanging fruit?
There are now far, far more opportunities to put the existing engagement opportunities that the Government already does in front of the public than there were before. Whilst there is a freeze on advertising and you cannot buy adverts on the side of bus shelters, as the Government goes online more and more in terms of its services, all those services become opportunities to ask people about something. Five minutes ago I talked about the internet being unusually good at taking people from one thing to another thing. If you buy a book on Amazon, at the end of the process it goes, "Hey, maybe you also want to buy this." They do that because they know how incredibly effective web pages can be at getting you to go from here, where you started, to over there, where you did not intend to go.
As of today, I do not believe you can register for benefits online, but you can, for example, buy your car tax online. I mention that because it is one of the biggest-if not the biggest-transactional services in the entire country. There are all kinds of motoring policies that the Government wants people’s views on at any point in time. I do not know what it is today, but it is probably something to do with tax. It used to be 12 million people a year; it is probably far more than that now, and when they get to the end of the online process of having bought their car tax, at the moment they are basically just told, "Bye." That is pretty much the situation. If you had a world view much more like Amazon, or like mySociety’s, you would say, "Well, we know these people drive cars, where they live, what kinds of cars they have, and it could be the most fantastically, unbelievably valuable opportunity to ask them something in relation to cars, motoring and transport." It is not just one opportunity, but so many millions that, if you bought it in the open market, it would bankrupt the Government.
Q34 Chair: For example, "Would you prefer to pay 10% of this amount for your tax disc and pay road charges instead?"
Tom Steinberg: Whatever the question of the day might be. You get into the separation between Government and democracy and Government and Parliament. What is the question? Are we going to have questions that skew the democratic process and so on and so forth? Those are all really legitimate worries, but at the same time, on your benefits point, benefits are going to be online soon. If we want to know what the public thinks about them, we should do quality, demographically balanced opinion surveys. I endorse that and I do not own any shares in YouGov. But at the same time, remember there will be a gigantic number of people turning up at Government web pages to interact. As things are today, you will not be asking those people anything about the policy, and the Government should be.
Q35 Robert Halfon: Last year I brought in a Private Member’s Bill to Parliament, which was called Democratising the BBC Licence Fee. The idea was that anyone who paid the licence fee would be able to vote for the Chairman, Director-General, and the Board of the BBC, and the Annual Report. This got laughed at by an enormous amount of people.
Paul Flynn: I was leading the laughter.
Chair: You are not laughing now.
Robert Halfon: Could I just ask the panel if they think that is a realistic form of digital engagement, and would they welcome something like that for the BBC, particularly given recent events?
David Babbs: I have not asked our members.
Q36 Robert Halfon: But do you have a view?
David Babbs: Yes, it sounds like a really interesting idea. I think you would need to poke at the details.
Q37 Chair: Would you run the engagement?
David Babbs: It would not be healthy for 38 Degrees to have a monopoly on running the engagement, but I am sure if such a process was happening, 38 Degrees members would wish to engage, and engage in numbers.
Stephan Shakespeare: I am slightly curious about this word. I feel a slightly hostile atmosphere towards engagement. Half the time politicians are out there saying, "We must get the public to engage; you must come and vote, and vote for me." Then you say there are certain newspaper readers at certain times that must not engage, and then they must engage at others. If your assumption is that the institution is working really well-you do not just take a piece of legislation that was particularly good but you say, "Legislation that is coming out of here is really, really good"-and that is your view and the view of your electorate, then of course there is no question about consultation; you do not need it. On the other hand, if your view is that the legislation that comes out of this House is imperfect and can be improved, then presumably the purpose of a session like this is to find ways of improving it.
Q38 Robert Halfon: The BBC question is clearly an example of digital engagement: democratising the licence-we are letting people who pay the licence fee vote online on the Director-General and Board of the BBC and the Annual Report.
Tom Steinberg: I don’t know how the BBC should be governed, and so I don’t know if that is a good idea.
Chair: We are not asking you. We are asking whether we should ask lots of people.
Q39 Robert Halfon: You say you believe in online engagement. I gave you an example, and you said you don’t know because you don’t understand the governance of the BBC. You must have a more thoughtful answer than that surely.
Tom Steinberg: What I was just saying, like the story I told about the early 90s, was that there is not a necessary connection between the direct control by the public over institutions and the internet. So the reason I say I don’t know about the governance of the BBC, and that is my answer here, is because I could definitely build you a website to do that and it would be really good and millions of people would come along. I can absolutely guarantee that. Would that be the right policy decision for the health of this country? I don’t know, because I have not put much thought into whether or not that is the right way of electing those senior people. Do you see how those are, in my view, quite separate issues?
Q40 Robert Halfon: Either you trust the people or you don’t, surely? Your whole argument up until now has been you trust the people, so therefore they should get more involved with digital engagement.
Tom Steinberg: No. I just said that we were more of the Burkean tradition.
Robert Halfon: Then when I give a concrete example, you go back to the traditional view: "I do not know about the governance of the BBC, so it might not quite work. It might not be right to trust the people on this one."
Chair: That leads on to the next question.
Q41 Paul Flynn: Mr Chairman, you have raised a deeper issue and you have not given us a chance to enter it. You raised the AV referendum. During that referendum I passed Vauxhall Cross every day, where there was a very large bill post that said, "If we have the alternative vote, there will be fewer flak jackets for our soldiers and less special equipment for babies in hospitals," so those voting for alternative vote believed in killing soldiers and babies. That was the propaganda message at Vauxhall Cross. We have this propaganda. The reason I object to certain newspapers is because they insult their readers and they publish propaganda, which the BBC does not. In spite of the criticism at the moment, the organ that is trusted for news is the BBC and the other broadcasters. It is quite right that we should not bow down before ill-informed propaganda like what happened during the AV referendum, which was wickedly untrue and damaging.
Chair: Very briefly, anybody? Mr Shakespeare?
Stephan Shakespeare: Why is the discussion about consultation on legislation mixed up with poor-quality propaganda?
Q42 Paul Flynn: We are very bad at legislating. 75 Bills went through the House in the last Government that were never implemented.
Chair: You have made your point, Mr Flynn.
David Babbs: An observation I would offer about an experience that 38 Degrees members have when they go to see or they contact online members of this House of all parties is that it seems like everyone has a fear and an assumption of the group that will be disproportionately able to get their way. For Paul it is the Daily Mail readers. Probably for some people of different parties, it is the liberal lefties with time on their hands. I think the reality is that there are all kinds of people of all kinds of persuasions who wish to get involved and to have more of a say. There is a variety of ways they can do that. 38 Degrees should not have a monopoly on that, but fundamentally do you think you have a monopoly on wisdom here, or do you think that can improve things?
Q43 Greg Mulholland: It has been a very interesting discussion, but it has been rather theoretical. Ultimately the challenge for the Government in delivering more open source policy-making is to try to change both structures and cultures to enable that to happen. Being blunt, do you think that is realistic considering the structure and culture of the Civil Service? Do you think it is possible to work within that, or are we looking at something more radical?
Tom Steinberg: I am glad that you asked that, because that lets me say the main thing that I wanted to say here. In the last 20 years, there has not been major engagement on democratic interventions because no one has been particularly interested in the power shifts or the reallocations of power that those would mean. This is because all big bureaucracies and political processes do not give up power unless something really, really important happens to make them do it. As of today there are no people standing outside here with placards saying, "Let us have profoundly different forms of democratic engagement that are innately digital."
To go back to the low-hanging fruit question of where we can begin, my recommendation, when you are thinking of initiatives that, for example, Parliament could undertake, is those that allow the public to get involved in a way that fundamentally makes the day in, day out working lives of the governing classes easier, which is a strange thing to say for someone running a democracy charity. There is a lot to be said for tools that align with the grain of how you like to work and do your jobs anyway. In the absence of a big loud protest movement saying, "Give us this new kind of franchise," I think the way of creating change is to ask what these institutions can do or create that will mean that when you walk into work as an MP every morning and turn on your iPad, you have some new kind of tool that gives you the knowledge and the intelligence that is not inside this building in a way that you would not otherwise have. That will make your job better. You will be better at your job; it will be make you enjoy your job-and the same for civil servants as well.
I would encourage investment in those areas, because then you get institutions embracing and inviting in what can potentially be quite difficult and dissonant change in the long term, but without it looking as scary as saying, "I am now signing a piece of paper that means I am giving up some power that I used to have." Twitter is an example of that signing up. Signing up to TheyWorkForYou email alerts is an example, to know what you said in Parliament yesterday. These are services for people out in the public realm, but they turn out to be really good for Members of Parliament and civil servants as well. As a consequence, Parliament and Government have embraced both of those technologies quite a lot. That is where I would start: more services of that kind until a political caucus grows that will make the case for actual power shifts.
Q44 Greg Mulholland: Mr Babbs, have you got any further points?
Chair: Very briefly if you can, because we are running out of time.
David Babbs: Constitutional change in Britain tends to be a slow and slightly chaotic process, and it is evolutionary, isn’t it? That is how we would expect this to happen as well. We are at a place now where you cannot stop the internet, and the internet means that people’s expectations of, and appetite for, engagement with institutions that affect them have shifted in fundamental ways. I think that poses technological challenges for you: do you as MPs or as a civil servant have the equipment to engage with that? One of the things I am starting to realise is just how basic the equipment is that individual MPs have with which to engage with their constituents.
But there are also cultural changes. My sense is if the Civil Service is going to change, that requires leadership, which is probably going to come from politicians. That has to start with a mindset shift-a cultural shift. I do have some understanding of where you are coming from in terms of some of the experiences you have had of public engagements thus far, but I think as long as politicians are as sceptical and, in many cases, hostile to the public getting more involved, I cannot see how the Civil Service will follow. Why should they?
Q45 Chair: In terms of the relationship with Government, shouldn’t politicians, particularly those that are not in Government, feel that public engagement is empowering rather than disempowering?
Tom Steinberg: Yes. Can I give you a much more practical example of how this could be that I hope will appeal to your self-interest? You all have to look at legislation all the time. I am sure you know the sinking feeling of sitting down and opening up a pile of amendments or a Bill and wondering where to begin: "What is the context?" Imagine it is five years from now. You are tasked with looking at some clause. You open it up and find the clause as it stands, and next to it are all the amendments being tabled by the parties, a range of criticism and commentary from outside Parliament, and amendments to this clause that are made both by MPs, who have a statutory ability to do that, and by other people, who do not. Can you imagine how much more pleasant it would be to find that all this information had been collated in front of you so that you could then just sit there and sift through the different opinions and decide what you really feel about the clause, without having to make a million phone calls?
Chair: I can see why the Whips Office would not like that.
Q46 Greg Mulholland: I think that sounds fantastic. That is Parliament; I would love that. As the Chair has said, the Whips would not. But going back to the Civil Service, because that is clearly the area that is being focused on, the Civil Service Reform Plan clearly says open policy-making will become the default and Whitehall does not have a monopoly on policy-making expertise. But there is a lot of disagreement about that and how that happens. What do you think about what Jeremy Heywood said back in March-that actually that means outsourcing policy-making, which clearly ruffled a few feathers? Do you think that is what has to happen?
Stephan Shakespeare: It is very important that you raise this and there is more discussion of the practical aspects and the usefulness of this topic rather than the political side of it. I am conducting an independent review of the Government’s Open Data White Paper, and as such I have a team of five civil servants, who have been fabulous in helping with that process. There is no way that I could write that review based on my knowledge or the knowledge of the civil servants or indeed the knowledge of the whole of Whitehall. It needs all the people that work in the public sector. This was a review of all public sector information; it requires doctors to take part, teachers and what they write in their reports, and how that is stored and all of these things. There is no way this can be a good piece of work or the final legislation will be any good unless you involve all the people that make up the world of data and information. That is a huge task, and I think the role of the Civil Service here should not be to be in control of that but to ensure that there is a fair, decent and effective process. I think they can do that. I am very impressed with how my team are working on that. I have not found any resistance at all to the idea of crowd sourcing information for that. That is the real opportunity: to improve the way that you govern by getting better information and using it in a better way.
Chair: We need to move on.
Q47 Greg Mulholland: I will very briefly put them on the spot, because I think that is such an important issue, Chair, if I may. Do you think that means outsourcing? Was Jeremy Heywood right?
Stephan Shakespeare: I absolutely think it should include outsourcing, yes.
Chair: Can I jump to Mr Cairns now? He has to leave, unfortunately, but he has a question.
Q48 Alun Cairns: You talk about managing public expectation, and the engagement that takes place. Take, for example, the petitions page on the Number 10 website, where initially there was a lot of enthusiasm behind it, but then, because of the lack of engagement and the lack of difference that would make, expectations waned. I hinted at this in the question earlier to you at 38 Degrees: will that wane eventually because of the lack of difference it is making? When the Government does move to a new system, or when it does seek to make tentative steps in a different direction, how can it manage expectation without losing the enthusiasm?
David Babbs: I think you can draw too strong a comparison between the fashions in TV shows, for example your X Factor analogy, and the public’s abiding interest in having a say in decisions that affect them. The mechanisms will change, which is why I think it is worth starting with the culture. We are talking about Facebook and Twitter now. Who is to say what the platforms will be in five or 10 years’ time? Who is to say 38 Degrees will still have the same role? Will the public still want to engage and will the internet still facilitate that? Yes, I think it will.
Q49 Alun Cairns: In the machinery of government, no matter how we speed it up, there will still need to be the legislative process and scrutiny that takes place in both Houses leading to royal assent, and that takes time. Therefore, regarding public expectation from an action they take in responding to whatever digital empowerment process we devise, it still takes time and that will lead to frustration. In the interim the technology may well have changed and they could have engaged in a different way before the legislation has taken effect.
David Babbs: To take the example of the Health and Social Care Bill, I think you probably experienced our members engaging throughout a legislative process, including in the House of Lords. Where our members had quarrels with it, it was not to do with the process. I am sure they could identify ways in which it could be improved, but the idea that legislation takes time I do not think is something that the public finds hard to understand. They are quite keen on the idea that things are properly debated and scrutinised.
Q50 Robert Halfon: How do you ensure that digital engagement does not reach the iPad generation, i.e. those people who can afford computers and smartphones? Have you done a socioeconomic analysis to look at how many of your members are on lower than average earnings-let’s say £15,000 to £20,000?
David Babbs: Yes, I think that is a very important question. Part of the answer is you should never rely on one medium. 38 Degrees does not believe that we should have a monopoly on this, nor do we believe that online engagement should be the only channel in. That said, a really quite broad section of the population do now have access to these technologies. We have taken quite a lot of care to look at our own membership and profile it, and it is fair to say that we have a broad geographical spread and broad age range. A very significant number of our members are retired, and a group that we are popular with are actually the housebound elderly.
Q51 Robert Halfon: What is the proportion on seriously lower socioeconomic-
David Babbs: We do have income stats.
Q52 Robert Halfon: You do?
David Babbs: I cannot recall them, but the £10,000 to £20,000 category is quite a significant chunk of our membership. It might be the second biggest band.
Q53 Robert Halfon: Can you send us that?
David Babbs: Yes, sure; I can email you that.
Q54 Kelvin Hopkins: First of all, a very strong point made by Tom Steinberg early on was that even a trivial non-thought-out engagement in politics, such as signing a petition or sending in a card, is the beginning of a process of engaging people. I may say that when I get postcard campaigns to me, every person that writes to me gets a letter back, with a reasoned argument either for or against what they are saying. It might be on abortion, AV or any subject. Then I write to the Minister, and then they get another reasoned letter back. Often my letter will criticise what the Minister has said. Whether they want it or not, they are going to get politics from me, and I think from that moment on they have been changed by that process. They have become engaged, I think you are right about that.
My question is: who should take the lead in providing opportunities and tools for the public to contribute to policy development? Should it be the Government, or do the best ideas come from campaigners, innovators and the public themselves?
David Babbs: I am sorry if this sounds like a fudge, but I think it is a mix. I think pluralism is important in this area, but I do think MPs have a particular role to play. Can I read out one paragraph of a letter that one of our members shared as an example of what I think is unhelpful here? It is a letter from an MP: "May I suggest, therefore, that rather than rely on the self-obsessed, self-indulgent and utterly deluded left-wing propaganda website 38 Degrees to do your thinking for you, you might like to actually think for yourself and articulate your own views in your own words. That way I may perhaps be more inclined to read your personal thoughts and comments rather than those propounded in the standard socialist-inspired 38 Degrees emails that you are clearly so reliant on, and that, at much expense to the hard-pressed taxpayer, I have already laboriously replied to tens and sometimes hundreds of times before. I trust this clarifies the situation. Yours sincerely, Karl McCartney MP."
That is something that we got sent as somebody’s response to my request for evidence on this. Not every MP replies in that manner, but that is by no means unique. I suspect a fair number of other MPs, even when they do not reply like that, kind of feel like doing that, and our members can sense that. A very enthusiastic and fired up 38 Degrees member got this letter. That is an example of MPs taking a lead in a very negative way and one that is very bad for democracy. You are basically suggesting to someone that their opinion is not their own, they cannot think for themselves and you are not going to value it. That is very dangerous.
Chair: I have got the message.
Q55 Kelvin Hopkins: Speaking as a socialist, I would probably regard your organisation as fluffy marshmallow centrist.
David Babbs: Nobody likes us.
Q56 Kelvin Hopkins: No, but there is a range of views. The one kind of organisation that is missed out of all of these is political parties. In the past we used to have political parties that put forward coherent alternatives. Over recent decades, in my view-I do not know if you would agree-they have become part of the centre, and you get an experience like in the European Union. I have been to meetings in the European Union. We have a statement from the Commission and the Chair of the Committee in the European Parliament-they all say the same thing, and everybody sits there like rabbits in headlights, except for the British, who come out and say, "This is nonsense." People are frightened even to say those sorts of things.
But in Britain we have had the same situation. Simon Jenkins’ book Thatcher and Sons has a picture of the last four Prime Ministers from Thatcher right down to Brown, and we could actually have five now with Cameron. The centre is there.
Chair: What is your question?
Kelvin Hopkins: Should political parties with different coherent views not be revived as an effective part of the political process, rather than seen as being a waste of space, which a lot of people do see them as because they are so similar?
Stephan Shakespeare: It is certainly a declining reason for belonging to political party these days, because the membership of political parties is no longer helping to make the policy, absolutely. My view is the Civil Service has the important role in ensuring the process. That should involve them outsourcing some of it and finding different pathways in, but I think it is an excellent role for the Civil Service to engage in: vouching for the fairness, inclusivity and the representativeness of the process.
Kelvin Hopkins: For a period under Blair, I think even the Civil Service was marginalised. Downing Street was the centre.
Chair: We have to move on.
Q57 Lindsay Roy: What criteria should the Government use to gauge success in their engagement process?
Stephan Shakespeare: What technology?
Q58 Lindsay Roy: What criteria should they use to gauge success in their engagement process? How would we know it is working?
Chair: Briefly, each of you, a final word?
Tom Steinberg: I would say, probably very much like the metrics that drive our organisations, there should be data recorded around things like the proportion of people who report that they believe they can have some impact on the world around them and that they have any say whatsoever in the country they live in. That is probably the highest level fact I would look for. You can break that down in lots of different ways, but that would be the top line I would go for.
David Babbs: Those things. In addition it is worth looking at numeric statistics in terms of the number of people who are engaging in different ways. It is also worth being able to point to examples of where public engagement has improved and transformed Government policy.
Stephan Shakespeare: I will give a qualitative one, which goes back to a theme I have had. The person doing the engagement, who wants to consult and improve their legislation, needs to feel they have actually benefited from a wide range of experience. That is ultimately the purpose. The demand side of this needs to be looked at. Why do people want consultation and how do they use it?
Q59 Lindsay Roy: Do you have any evidence that Government consultation or engagement is token?
Stephan Shakespeare: That is what I mean. I think the vast majority of it is constructed to do what they feel they ought to do by a defined process.
Q60 Chair: Box ticking.
Stephan Shakespeare: Box ticking, yes. This will work only if the person who is ultimately the client of the consultation wants to know what people think, wants their contribution and wants to be influenced.
Q61 Lindsay Roy: So that goes back to cultural change.
Stephan Shakespeare: Absolutely-it is absolutely cultural change.
David Babbs: "Lip service" was one of the most commonly occurring phrases in people’s responses.
Q62 Lindsay Roy: Gesture politics?
David Babbs: Yes.
Q63 Chair: Before we call our second panel of witnesses, does each of you think that this Committee has got the point of this? Is there one point you would like to leave us with?
Tom Steinberg: I certainly have one. There is a very helpful lens to look at this world through of the two different kinds of innovation in this field. One is improving the ways in which people find and get access to the channels that are already there. So how hard is it to know who your local councillor is? When I go and buy my tax disc, is there a thing that just sticks in front of me and says, "Hey, you might care about this. Why don’t you give us 30 seconds?" That is not really about politics in a kind of capital P sense, but that is where the big opportunities lie. Profoundly new forms of participation involving shifts of power will be driven by the internet over 20 to 30 years. For today the really useful actions could be to ask if we are doing everything we can to make all those many channels, from planning consultations to discussions about parking, accessible? Have we really invested in making sure that whenever someone might benefit from being involved in one of those that it is presented to them in a lovely, easy to consume way at a time and a place of their choosing?
Q64 Chair: It sounds like a lot of work to do.
Tom Steinberg: Yes, but I am saying it is not constitutional yet.
David Babbs: I perceive from the questioning around the table a really ingrained scepticism of people’s motives for getting involved and the authenticity of the public’s appetite to get involved.
Q65 Chair: Wait till you read our report.
David Babbs: Whether that is the Daily Mail pulling the strings or your questions about whether I or our members decide what campaigns we run, I think at its heart that is a really big obstacle to you engaging with the public in an authentic way, because you are so worried about who is manipulating it and assuming that there are sinister puppet masters behind the strings. 38 Degrees is an example of that really not being the case. I am sure there are others, and if you can make that leap of faith, you might find you get quite a lot of good quality stuff coming in.
Stephan Shakespeare: I will just reiterate the need to focus on the practical steps of improving the quality of input and critique and the effect that has on legislation. There has been a lot about the politics of it, but I think the practical quality control of how it is done is important.
Q66 Robert Halfon: You run the TheyWorkForYou website, which I find incredibly useful, and I send the details to my constituents and put it on my website. Often the subjects that are chosen-for example whether an MP has voted for Trident or whatever it might be-are very selfselective. What engagement does the public have in choosing those subjects that you choose to highlight on "MPs are voting on"? Even though it gives you incredibly useful information, what plans do you have to update the website to really engage the public in it?
Tom Steinberg: There are two issues there; the speed of update and how we select things. The speed of update is slow simply because we do not have very much money for that project, which is a great shame and maybe you can do something about. On how we pick those issues, that is obviously something that has a great potential for corruption. Because of that we choose the most dumb and unpolitical thing, which is we choose them by the number of MPs that turn up at the votes. Within a Parliament we start with what were the massive votes, and essentially what was the crux of those massive votes? Then we go down to smaller and smaller votes. Although no political editor would ever do that, we do that so that I can sit here right now and tell you about a process where we have tied ourselves to a mast so that we have a process that is rather inhuman and relatively neutral, because we do not ever want anyone to think that as a group we have an agenda. The agenda of TheyWorkForYou is to make it possible for members of the public to find out what goes on.
Chair: Thank you to our panel-a most interesting session. We will move on to our next panel of witnesses. I am most grateful to you. Thank you very much. You all had a lot to say.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Roger Hampson, Chief Executive, London Borough of Redbridge, Catarina Tully, Director, FromOverHere, and Professor Beth Noveck, former US Deputy Chief Technology Officer and author of Wiki Government, gave evidence.
Q67 Chair: Welcome to our second panel of witnesses in this inquiry about public engagement. Could you each identify yourselves for the record?
Roger Hampson: My name is Roger Hampson. I am the Chief Executive of the London Borough of Redbridge.
Professor Noveck: My name is Beth Simone Noveck. I am a professor at the NYU Wagner School of Public Service in New York, and also at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Catarina Tully: Cat Tully; I am a Strategy Consultant in International Affairs, formerly working for the Cabinet Office and the Foreign Office, and now teaching civil servants internationally and in the UK.
Q68 Chair: And also an adviser to this Committee on strategic thinking.
Catarina Tully: Correct. Also it is probably good to say now a trustee to Involve, the public participation think tank, and also the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development, but I am speaking in my personal capacity.
Q69 Chair: From each of your perspectives, which are from the perspective of Government in its different forms, why is it so important to engage the public more than we do at present in policy-making?
Professor Noveck: When identifying myself, I should have mentioned I did serve of course for two years as the creator and founder of the White House Open Government Initiative and Deputy Chief Technology Officer in the Obama Administration in the Obama White House, so I did have the privilege of creating the first national-level online agenda around citizen engagement for the US Government.
It is extraordinarily important, and I will echo some of the things that Tom Steinberg just said. At this moment in time, as an institution-as a business, if you will-Government is operating in ways that are largely antiquated in terms of our ability to make good decisions on the basis of the best information. We have this great opportunity now to engage citizens to the end not simply of creating more participation and more democracy from a philosophical perspective, but of enabling us to do our jobs better: to create smarter, more effective Government, where we can frankly do a better job of tackling the enormously complex problems that we are facing. I would second his emphasis on saying that the goal of citizen engagement now is smarter Government above all: the ability to do our jobs in Government better on the basis of better information and new and more innovative ideas for how to tackle problems. There has been this constant rhetoric in the last few years that Government does not have the best information it needs or all the answers to all the questions, whether in Whitehall or Washington. We need to tap the best ideas that we can get-not only the best thinking but the best doing, acting and creating of new innovations that allow us to tackle challenges.
Catarina Tully: The previous speakers have said that public engagement is very important because of legitimacy, accountability and accessing new insights. I would also like to put this in a context of what is going to change over the next 10 years. Public engagement levels, if you look at the Hansard results, show interest in traditional politics has dropped below 50%. We need to re-engage the public, and that is really through non-traditional political forms. Also we are becoming increasingly aware that non-Government actors are really important to address our wellbeing-UK security and UK prosperity-so we need to engage on things like cyber, obesity and climate change with a lot of the actors, and have them as participatory members.
The world is becoming more globalised, interconnected, uncertain and complex. One of the key ways of responding to that is building social cohesion and resilience within communities, and the process of public engagement, discussion and dialogue is absolutely critical to that. The technical drive obviously opens up the possibility of mass participation in democracy, both representative and participatory democracy, in a new way. First of all you have more decision-making and oversight power, but there are downsides to that. There is the echo chamber effect. It can be superficial; the agenda setting can be quite random, responsive and reactive. So I think there are downsides that we need to explore. In summary, in order to have better public engagement, we need to have much stronger Government. It needs to be more strategic, smaller, but much stronger. That is the key tension that I would like to bring out.
Roger Hampson: I think the answer to your question is: because we believe in an open society. We believe in a society in which people participate in the decisions that matter to them. In Redbridge for the past six years we have tried to take a rather different perception, which is these new technological tools are changing every aspect of our lives. They are changing industry, commerce, what it means to be in the voluntary sector and what it means to like music. It is inconceivable that those tools will not affect and change Government. We have simply been trying to explore what those tools actually mean. Those changes will happen, so the point is to understand those changes and take part in them. A danger for local government in particular is that tools such as mySociety and other organisations will change what engagement and participation means, and local authority members will be nowhere in it. Our members particularly want to be part of that change.
Q70 Kelvin Hopkins: This is to Roger Hampson, regarding what you do in Redbridge. You have taken these additional steps to facilitate participation in your You Choose budget consultations by people without internet access or computer skills. How much did the extra time and effort involved cost in comparison to the normal paper approach to policymaking?
Roger Hampson: It depends on how you are accounting for it. The whole exercise cost us in cash terms perhaps £25,000. As it happens, we then entered a partnership with the YouGov organisation that Stephan Shakespeare runs, and persuaded the LGA to buy the tools for local government generally. They paid 50 grand, and YouGov split it with us, so in cash terms we came out about even. But obviously the actual cost is a huge amount of officer and member time and thinking about it. Having said that, because our aim is to get eyeballs to our website because web transactions cost us so much less, as well as being what people prefer, we have driven more traffic to our website.
Chair: Could you please speak up a little?
Roger Hampson: Sorry. We have driven the traffic to our website up from about 20,000 to about 60,000 or 70,000 visits a week. That enables us to make a whole load of other savings in the authority, which enormously outweigh the cost of all of these exercises.
Q71 Kelvin Hopkins: It sounds admirable, but given the current state of local government finances, is it not illusory that there is a choice when we are really saying what would you least like to see cut, rather than what would you want us to spend money on?
Roger Hampson: With respect, that is not quite what we do. Traditional surveys basically ask people what variety of motherhood or apple pie they like best. What we have attempted to say to people is, "Remove the fiscal illusion; you pay for what you get."
Robert Halfon: Could you speak a bit louder?
Roger Hampson: Sorry, I am probably leaning away from the microphone. What our tool says is, "If cuts are going to be made, which ones would you like it to be? Pound for pound, service for service, service mix for service mix, set out your preferences." Our evidence is that that very complex question, which is actually the question legislators and local government are answering every day, is the question that people want to be involved in.
Q72 Kelvin Hopkins: Do you do that for minor things like, "What would you charge for football pitches?" and that kind of thing, or do you have big issues like, "Would you like to see Redbridge build more local authority housing, or should the land be sold off for private development?"
Roger Hampson: We have done all of those. The first mass collaboration we did in 2008 was around capital expenditure, and we simply listed for people the broad areas in which local government does spend capital money, and the broad areas in which we could raise money. We asked them what they wanted to have, and how they would find the money. But because of the wonders of the internet, if you clicked on one of those broad categories, it would tell you as much information as you liked about all of those things. So in terms of land sales, we asked if they wanted to sell land, but you could click through that and come to all the different options for the viable bits of land we had to sell. In order to have full information, I spent some time persuading our valuers to put our valuation of each piece of land against that so a reasoned decision could be made about how much would be raised.
Q73 Kelvin Hopkins: My concern, having been involved in politics for some time, is that the people who speak loudest are the most articulate; they are the ones who are well resourced; they are computer literate and will have computers. The people least likely to respond are the poor, the disadvantaged, the less educated-those without access to computers-who might actually be in greater need of local authority services.
Roger Hampson: I think that is absolutely true. First of all, it happens that Redbridge has got a very high level of internet penetration. My colleague’s main aim in Sunderland, where things are very different, is to get people to have this tool, not merely for participation in local government but participation in life. Secondly, in terms of regarding this as a way to find out what people think, because we have such a high level of participation it was reasonably easy in our partnership with YouGov to manipulate the figures to match exactly who lives in the borough. So we were able to find out what people in the borough thought by correcting for the effects you are talking about.
If you were talking about it as engagement, you are absolutely right. If people have not got these tools, they cannot engage in that aspect of life. But I would say at one of our Cabinet meetings, on a very controversial subject, we get perhaps 50 people to attend once every six weeks. On the internet we had nearly 5,000 people participating in discussing and thinking about the budget. The numbers are just so astronomically bigger objectively with the internet.
Chair: Moving on. Sorry, we must move on.
Q74 Kelvin Hopkins: Do you still get battles between the parties when it comes to decisions in council?
Roger Hampson: No, but we get much better informed battles.
Q75 Robert Halfon: First of all, just to get it on the record, it is a huge pleasure to have the Professor as a witness. I read your book and I was inspired by it, which is one of the reasons why I was delighted the Committee did this inquiry, and it is great that you are able to be at the session. Before I ask my specific question, can you just sum up your book for the benefit of the Committee? Do not just go through the peer to patent thing, which we have got notes on, but how you think that can be translated into genuine digital engagement.
Professor Noveck: You could probably give a better book report than I could. I promptly forgot everything once I wrote it, and I am trying to think about the next one now, which is to think about how to apply these lessons. You know the crux of the experiment that we engaged in, and it is ongoing in fact in the UK as well, which was getting volunteer scientists and technologists to collaborate with several national patent offices to help in providing the information that would allow Government officials to make better decisions. So it gets back to the earlier point that I made, which I think is the core lesson that after my experience in Government still stands for me, which is that the future of Government looks like a hybrid between strong Government institutions, as you were mentioning, and networks of people-groups and individuals-participating in helping to make those institutions work better.
The notions that somehow engagement is in fact a purely direct democratic push-button process of outsourcing the job of Government to the crowd-or the mob, as some people would think about it-or to markets, businesses and companies are I think visions that are undesirable and false. It is not where we are seeing technology take us and where we would like it to take us in this next generation, which is making the work that we do smarter. So the patent example was one in particular where the idea was not to abdicate decision making on extremely important economic, controversial decisions about patents to the crowd, but to reserve that decision-making authority of the Government official and have it informed with far greater, more nimble, agile, quick input from people in the field who know. One lesson is that it is the combination always between the network and the institution.
The second lesson that holds true is that design is extremely important. We worked very hard in thinking about how to craft a process that would enable that work to be done in a manageable amount of time, understanding that the civil servant who has to make that decision does not get paid to stay longer and does not have time to read through thousands of postcard comments. In fact postcard comments are highly undesirable when you are trying to make a more informed decision. So instead we thought about how to take what was then the best of green technologies to allow us to craft a process that would work for both sides of the equation. So to the question that was asked earlier about assessment, it was very important for us, and something we did in the process, not only to ask the people who were participating about their experience and what value they could contribute but to ask the people who were doing the asking how it benefitted them. So we surveyed the patent officials and the civil servants, and asked, "Was this a process that worked for you to help you do your job better, and how can we improve on that process?"
The one thing I can report just as an update relates to the national patent office in the US. Something that I helped to work on was to suggest they use a new platform that is currently available for free in the marketplace-not to use the software that I have designed and built for them, but to take a platform that is now readily and freely available-to do full-scale engagement for every patent in the whole system. So instead of doing a pilot, which is what we did, just about a month ago we moved towards full-scale engagement for every single patent in the system using a free platform. So the technology is not the impediment anymore; it is designing the right implementation, and that requires thinking about both the technology and the policy context in which it is implemented to create a process that is actually manageable and relevant for the people participating and the people who are making the decisions. I could go on and on, as I am a Professor, but I will stop there.
Chair: We cannot have the whole book, I’m afraid.
Q76 Robert Halfon: I do not know how much you have been able to observe of what the British Government are doing, but do you think they have made progress? What would you suggest they could do to go further?
Professor Noveck: Some of you may know I had hoped last year to come and spend an extended time working here, and for medical reasons I did not end up assuming that post. But I have a cordial and ongoing relationship of chatting now and again with folks here and comparing notes across the pond. In fact I am in town to organise a meeting on the research side of participatory engagement, to try to set up an international research collaborative, which we hosted at Nigel Shadbolt’s Institution, ODI, and at Number 10. I have been able to observe that this Government, as in the US, has made great strides on opening up its data in unprecedented ways and has really set the stage for the rest of the world for greater transparency. But transparency alone is not enough. Transparency by itself does not produce accountability, and it also does not produce smarter Government by itself. In fact the work that you are thinking about on ways of pushing, whether it is the Government in the UK or in the US-and we have as much of a struggle with this-is taking it to the next level of asking how to encourage people to engage with that data to build innovations that make Governments smarter, that develop better solutions for citizens and help us to do our work better.
I will give you a specific, concrete example here. There was an initiative rolled out last year called the Red Tape Challenge, which went halfway in the right direction of asking people to engage with the process of thinking about rules and regulations. But that initial process, which has been replicated recently in Texas-the Texas Red Tape Challenge-fundamentally focussed on asking people the reactive question of: "Which regulation should we get rid of?" That does not go far enough to take advantage of people’s skills and abilities, and instead to ask them the hard question of saying, "This rule was designed to do X, but in an earlier time. Can we think of more innovative ways that would achieve the same purpose-protect the public, increase entrepreneurship, benefit the economy, or whatever the goal is-but do it in ways that are not just more nimble or lightweight for entrepreneurs and innovators, but maybe even more effective for consumers, using new technology? Are there ways in which I could use requirements to disclose data, the development of a new kind of app, or something that might be a technique to effect better compliance, rather than the way we have traditionally written the rules?"
It is not atypical, for this and every Government, to take that first step of being more open and starting to ask the questions. It is about how we craft the questions that we ask to get the most relevant and helpful expertise. In this case, it is asking not simply, "What do you feel about something?" but "How can you actually help us to craft a better solution, or participate in building better alternatives?"
Roger Hampson: I will make a couple of points following on from that. I agree with all of that. I am a director of the Open Data Institute. One of the things we have done at Redbridge is to build a tool that enables us to put all of our data out on the internet; we have somewhere around 200 data sets, of which about 120 are on the web already. Our experience so far is that we get quite a low rate of people wanting to download or look at the data; it is building up, but clearly it will build up much more when other people start using those kinds of tools. However, relying on agencies out there to pick up on and interpret data will take a long, long time. Part of the game here is to use your own data, present it in ways that are interesting and drag people in to the issues.
To follow up on a point about direct democracy, we built a version of our You Choose tool, went to Number 10 and tried to persuade them to get the Treasury to use it in 2010, when the nation was having to make really quite difficult budgetary choices. Stephan and I were unable to persuade the Treasury that they would like people engaging in the national budget, for quite interesting reasons. So, we ran it out to a structured sample of 2,500 people ourselves, just to see what we got. Actually, what we got was a broad range of decisions that were very similar to what the Government was doing, unsurprisingly. Indeed, if the tool had said that people wanted something utterly different, you would think that the tool was wrong.
Within that, when you cut down to the details, just to take one example, people nationally did not want to maintain overseas development aid; foreign aid is enormously unpopular. We think we can stand that up completely. You ask yourself then, if George Osborne had used this tool, with the equivalent number involved nationally-let’s say a million people-and a million people said, "We broadly agree with you but we don’t agree with you on foreign aid," do you imagine the Government would have simply fallen over on overseas aid? Or do you imagine that people actually believing in it would have stood up in Parliament and said, "Broadly speaking we are doing what you want, but on these few issues we happen to disagree with you. You elected us, and that’s what we’re going to do." Because I am a believer in representative democracy, I think that is what people would do: they would stand up and say that. All the polling evidence shows that politicians who have credibility because they are able to stand up against what appears to be public opinion get a lot more standing from that. So I do not think you have to move to direct democracy because you have much better information about what people think.
Q77 Chair: I have a question on You Choose. I have looked at the national model online that you can play with, and, yes, it is quite fun to cut this, cut that, and see what the model says you have cut, but that is not necessarily what you would cut. For example, if there was another cut in defence, I would not cut Trident; I would cut other things, but that is the first thing on the list that gets cut.
Roger Hampson: I should say straight away that the process by which we produced our local You Choose devices involved a huge amount of discussion with elected members about what they thought the realistic options were.
Q78 Chair: So the national model we are looking at is more of a stab in the dark.
Roger Hampson: We mocked up the national model in a short period of time. If you were actually running a national model, you would spend a lot of time designing the model much better than we did. You are quite right.
Q79 Robert Halfon: I want to ask about social media. For the last election, my party developed a social media website for Conservatives called MyConservatives.com. It was meant to be a kind of Conservative version of Facebook, where members could interact with each other, and let each other know about mutual aid and donations. It was not really a great success. As far as I am aware, the site has folded, although they spent a lot of money in making it. When you are digitally engaging, should you use what is out there already, such as Twitter and Facebook, and is it possible to do so? Do you have to develop completely new models? Or is it a bit of both?
Professor Noveck: Yes and yes. First of all, the cost of using things like Facebook and Twitter, and building that into the daily work of press operations and whatnot, is relatively low. They are excellent ways of broadcasting out and reaching people in the same way we use television, radio, newspaper or other traditional media. For other kinds of collective action, or organising other kinds of processes, we do need some purpose-built tools. The great part is that the cost is so low that we have the ability to do more of them in more innovative ways.
It is not always about tools; it comes back to how we ask the question. I will give you an example. In the US Government, we built a site called Challenge.gov, which makes it possible for any agency in the US Government-I think they have now opened it up at the state level too-to pose challenges for the public to help solve. When I say challenges, I am not talking about a policy question like, "What is your view on this particular consultation?" It is, "We are trying to develop the next generation combat vehicle and are looking for the best prototypes that meet the following criteria," or "We are looking for the best recipes for school children, or to create the best video game, to help decrease childhood obesity." The challenges often have prizes or glory at the back of them; they do not have to be financial prizes-the prize can be to come and shake the hand of the Minister, or a free tshirt, or to have done a public service. We are engaging people in offering their services and abilities in new ways. We tend to think of engagement as text or conversation/dialogue based; or maybe now we think of it as liking something on Facebook. But this was a relatively cheap way to set up a better facility essentially for tapping people’s expertise and asking questions of them.
In order to minimise the cost, and because it was something needed across all agencies, the decision was made to build that platform centrally. By the same token, another thing we did was to execute blanket purchase agreements with vendors like Facebook and YouTube and other crowdsourcing platforms to make a variety of different tools available so any Ministry could choose whatever tool it wanted to use: one wants to use Facebook; another wants to use IdeaScale; another one wants to use a third. There was a need to grease the skids of procurement, particularly on acquiring, free, cheap and opensource tools, as it turned out we were just not very good at knowing how to acquire things that did not cost anything. If it was a defence system, we knew what to do, but if you wanted to use Facebook, it initially turned out to be very difficult. The short answer is you have to do all of the above. However, I would caution against expensive, purposebuilt projects that are overdesigned, because they never work the way you think they will. That is why we need to be willing to embrace some degree of experimentation and innovation, to see what works.
Catarina Tully: Instead of talking about tools and mechanisms, I will perhaps talk about the purpose of public engagement. There are different types of public engagement, and it is very helpful to distinguish between the categories. You have expertise, deliberation on complex issues like GM, representation, then consultation, which is around legitimacy. We do these different forms of engagement at different times in the process and for different reasons. Depending on what that purpose is, we should use different tools. My problem with some of this discussion around public engagement as reflected in the Civil Service Reform Plan is that it puts the whole public engagement piece under three issues: it is about contestability, digital and civil servants. It is actually not. It is about the role of Government in society, and the relationship between citizens and Governments. It is about democracy; it is about how technological changes basically mean we can hold each other to account differently.
Q80 Chair: Instead of treating it as an addon, it is in fact an existential question.
Catarina Tully: It is being treated as a tool or addon; you get gimmicks and wasted money. Again, we need a stronger, clearer idea of what the role of Government is within a system, not at the top of a pyramid, and as a platform. It needs the skills-and certainly civil servants need more skills to do that role, but so, by the way, do the political entities within that constellation or political landscape. We really need to look at it more systemically.
Specifically on your social media point, I would like to say two things. First of all, apart from investing more in training, the one message I would like to give to civil servants is: go to where the conversations are being held. Hansard indicates these political conversations are being held, just not in traditional venues, so go to where they are being held. Don’t set up new structures; go to Mumsnet in order to understand what mums think about politics. I
would like to underline, perhaps against the general optimistic thrust of the three people you heard this morning, that there are real problems with digital engagement around quality of deliberation, which I think is an issue your colleague Paul Flynn brought out. It does need to be meaningful and sometimes not one to one. Digital interaction is one to one. When you are talking about policy-making, it is about being in a community. There are different trade-offs and public externalities about how you commonly come to public goods. Facetoface engagement is absolutely necessary and needs to be re-inserted into this debate.
Q81 Robert Halfon: How do you stop public engagement being manipulated by groups that have loads more resources and are better financed than others? We had 38 Degrees here. They have a huge budget and huge staffing-good luck to them-and they do fascinating work, in my view. But how do you stop an organisation like that crowding out other organisations, which do not necessarily have access to those resources, in the digital sphere?
Roger Hampson: To begin with, what do you think is the starting position? It is that all those organisations completely crowd out the nondigital discussion, and that the lobbying, political advertising, etc, completely dominate the space. Criticising moving in the right direction because it has not got to the goal yet is rather missing the point.
You just have to recognise that new technology is changing and will utterly change what it is to be a citizen. It is not just whether somebody will ask you about a policy or a budget. In local government, we own everything that people can see out of their windows: the roads, lampposts, grass, paths and schools. Up until now, it simply has not been possible to have an engaged discussion about that at all. We have simply set up our website so that people can log in with a password; they use their postcode, and when they go in, the website tells them what is happening to the schools, roads and lampposts outside their house. That was not possible 10 years ago, not because the technology did not exist but because everybody now has it on their kitchen table. That very profound change has happened, and it is the job of us in this room to live with that change and work out what it means. Of course, for every one you succeed, your 10th will always be wrong and two will fall over, or whatever, but that change has happened.
In parallel with that-and the Civil Service is having real difficulty recognising this-what it means to be a bureaucrat in the 21st century will be utterly different. It will not be about vast amounts of paperwork in order to deliver the stuff that somebody thinks is a good idea. All that is going. It is about harnessing this technology to understand what policies make sense in the real world that people live in. You are absolutely right; if you are not careful, overwhelming public opinion will push in some direction that makes no sense and takes people off the cliff. The role of politicians, political actors and bureaucrats is to try to match what people think or what people are influenced to think with reality in very short timescales. That is going to be enormously difficult. The Civil Service needs to be thinking, "How the hell do we deal with that?"
Chair: That is a very good answer.
Professor Noveck: As a quick response, I agree with all of these comments. This gets back to the systemic look at how we do engagement. I agree strongly that the game is already skewed; people will game whatever system we have or already have. We have far worse problems with inclusion in an offline era than in an online era. But how you try to minimise the risk also has to do with how and when you ask in the process. For example, when we craft policies, whether legislations, regulations or just policy statements, we tend to do so after we have finished, essentially, the work internal to Government. We have a nicely polished draft that we put out and ask for comments. Then you get, of course, different competing groups, whether they be sending in postcard comments or long legal briefs, which end up being rather unhelpful, skewing the debate and causing all these problems they suffer from in terms of the conversational deficits that were mentioned.
We started to look at how we can ask questions earlier in the process to get better information and facts to craft those policies in the first place. This was informed somewhat by the experience with this patent project of knowing that, even in a highly controversial, economically important area like a decision on who gets the patent, if you asked a very factbased, granular, small question, it is much harder to game the answer. In other words, if I am looking for information about who has expertise in citizen engagement or in doing pilot projects around X, or for a fact or statistic about how many people from underserved communities actually participate in the consultation-those kinds of hard questions you are asking us-it is much harder to game. Although everybody may not agree on the answer, and it does not have to have a single answer, the more granular the question, the more difficult it is to game. When you start to move up in the process of when you ask people and what you ask them, you create more opportunities for engagement.
This is why the tool that the Patent and Trademark Office has now adopted in the US is a system that was originally, and continues to be, used by millions of programmers, which is called a Q&A platform. The CEO of that company-I love his formulation-says, "Our tool is a getthroughtheafternoon tool." We are not asking questions you take three months to answer. We are a platform that enables people to say, "I can’t do my job today unless I know this statistic, fact or piece of evidence. I have to ask 100 questions to get through the afternoon." That platform is optimised around that sort of design, and in fact questions are answered in a matter of seconds or minutes because they have a scale of people participating. Thinking about those opportunities, if I sit in a bank in the City and I am about to make investment, I have tools that allow me to say, "Tell me the eight greatest experts on solar power in China before I make an investment, because I have 10 questions for them." That is the kind of thing we are lacking. It is a very different flavour of consultation, though, from the more heavily valuesladen conversation that we still do not know how to do well, and that is often easily gamed.
Catarina Tully: To briefly answer your question, that is actually one of the core roles of Government, as a system steward, in the future to decide on. If we are going to pare back and think again, as Roger was saying, about what role the bureaucrat has in the 21st century, one of the key functions has to be to decide on the nature of the debate in the particular policy area you are looking at, and how to support effective deliberation. We all know the subject areas, like climate change, where there is a lot of tension, and a lot of capture by groups both online and offline. It is about asking whether we need to deepen some of the wider discussions, or deepen expertise engagement to influence this issue. These difficult issues mean that it is not an easy solution; we are going to have to debate sustainable development, old age and pensions, and all these issues with intergenerational equity effects. Those are the issues that politicians at the national level will have to debate and get more people in wider society discussing.
Roger Hampson: What we are running in Redbridge is, in effect, a membership version of citizenship. We have 50,000 citizens in the borough who have logins and passwords to our website. They also have accounts with us that contain their council tax payments and other issues they are interested in. It beggars belief that a lobbying company will fake 10,000 people living in Redbridge and pay council tax for them in order to get a vote there; that is not going to happen. So, we are pretty clear about the validity of the base we are using.
Nationally, I would like to be a member of the United Kingdom. I have a personal relationship with the Amazon bookshop, who know vast amounts about me, but I do not have that relationship with the people who make the decisions here. The notion of active citizenship, in which you are registered with the country you wish to be an active citizen of, is very easy to do: simple statistics validates who is taking part, who is not, and you do the multiplication to make sure that you get proper results. If you encourage enough people to do what they do with their bookshop or their suppliers of many goods-their grocery stores-and that is your model of citizenship, most of these issues you can get around: the simple ones about fraud; the issues about how you discuss enormously complicated issues with people, which is very difficult.
When we tried to persuade the Treasury to use a version of our You Choose device, they had two objections. One was timescale: the length of time it would take to build a proper model, which is a fair objection. The other was that they absolutely, plainly thought that people could not possibly understand the construction of the United Kingdom budget, because that is what they did, and frankly that’s bollocks.
Q82 Greg Mulholland: I return to the issue of the Civil Service, and whether it can be a part of this change or is a potential barrier to it. In the Civil Service Reform Plan, the Government contrasts a model where the Civil Service filters or blocks external policy advice with one where people have "unmediated direct routes to Ministers". That being the case, does that mean cutting the Civil Service out of the loop in some, or indeed many, situations?
Catarina Tully: We should commend the Civil Service Reform Plan for being so positive about open policymaking, and for having more or less the right assessment: that policymaking currently is too closed, untransparent, not open enough to challenge. That is all right. It also has some interesting innovations. The cross-departmental teams are good. More investment for outside policy ideas I would agree with. But it does not look at the systemic issue. The reason why civil servants do not do this more effectively is not because they do not want or are not able to, although of course a bit more training and idea of what good practice is would be good. I have trained a lot of civil servants in policymaking, and this is an integral part of what we train, and has been for the past four or five years; it is not really new. If you want to understand what is causing barriers to civil servants doing this, I would propose it is two other things. It is not about capacity or stubbornness. It is about having the time to do this effectively and being rewarded for it; and also having the political space. This area is not addressed in the Civil Service Reform Plan, which is really problematic; it is not in the interests of politicians to open up to the risk of having a lot of this decided by constituencies. Until you address that, it will be very difficult to get civil servants to be open and do open policymaking as much as we want them to.
Q83 Greg Mulholland: Briefly, because I am conscious of time, I mentioned earlier Sir Jeremy Heywood’s comments. Do you think it requires outsourcing of policymaking in the way he suggested?
Catarina Tully: If I look at my diagnosis of what the barriers are to open policymaking, I do not think that outsourcing is going to address the issue of not having enough time or the political space/risk issue-that people are quite conservative. In fact, you potentially add more risks. I do not think we acknowledged the fact that civil servants have amazing assets of authority, legitimacy and their convening power, which actually has a real pound value to it. If you are a private organisation asking for the expert input that the Cabinet Office often comes to us to ask for-and our time is free-there is a lot of value to that. It is recognised internationally. A lot of international civil servants who I train come to the UK and say, "The way you civil servants do it, and your professionalism, is right." So my concern is that you throw the baby out with bathwater.
I need to caveat all of this with the fact that there is very little detail in the plan of how it will act in practice, but I think it would probably be a bit better to have a very clearly defined role-picking up Beth and Stephan’s points earlier-of the civil servant as a custodian or guardian of the process, at the heart of decision-making. It needs more money, certainly, and more openness to other people feeding in to it. I am absolutely against outsourcing the decisionmaking. I am totally for including a lot more input and reducing the role of civil servants to a guardian of the process.
Roger Hampson: First of all, we should recognise that we have a pretty open policymaking process at present. The British process is very open to academic life and to people in industry who have strong views getting those views accepted. Certainly, as a former director of social services and an academic in social care, virtually all the changes in social care that have taken place in the past 30 years have originated in academic discussions that have been picked up by civil servants and then led to very profound changes, which were often, for financial reasons, just absolutely necessary. I would not say we live in a closed society to begin with. I would say that the pace of change and the ability to source academic and nonacademic opinion, and the opinion of people in industry, is much greater than it was. The speed is much greater than it was. Civil servants need to be open to that.
The absolute central policymaking process will never be outsourced as such, because somebody inside will have to be saying yes or no to policies. That will need a very different, quick, adaptable style, though possibly not substance, of policymaking inside Government. It will need to be much more open, smaller, and all of that. However, I think those changes are profound only in the sense that it is about speed and size. I do not think you should start throwing out the openness of the existing policymaking process.
There is a very interesting book that David Edgerton wrote, called Britain’s War Machine, which is about the economy of the country during the Second World War, and the myth that a completely unprepared Government had no connections or knowledge of what was going on. In fact, it was enormously datadriven from before the War. The British Empire was enormously economically powerful, with a vast range of resources, and drew in every academic and industrialist who had anything to say. It was a very successful machine 60 or 70 years ago. There is no difficulty in doing that; we just have better tools to do it with.
Chair: The story of Bletchley Park is exactly that.
Roger Hampson: Absolutely.
Professor Noveck: If there is time, I want to second that. We had beautifully designed systems 50 years ago. Between the US and the UK, we have evolved. Bureaucracy, administration and the Civil Service are great inventions of the 20th century that were designed to create truly expert Government that could operate independently. That has been at the admiration of the world. We are talking about how to evolve these institutions for the 21st century.
I had a lovely dinner last night with a British entrepreneur, who is running a company around digital science, and trying to build tools for scientists. He essentially has a storehouse of innovators whom he incubates and shepherds, recognising that if he tried to build a central organisation with all the best ideas for how to support scientific research, he could not do it quickly by himself. At the same time, he could not just invest in a bunch of companies like a venture capitalist and let them go off and do their thing; these people are extremely smart about a specific area of science, but have no experience of how to run a company or solve a problem at scale. So his company has a blended model, and I was struck by this in thinking about the session today as instructive, at least, for how we think about the role of the Civil Service and the steward of the conversation. It is about opening up ways of getting at new kinds of solutions to problems, but without abdicating the role of the civil servant or the Government. I cannot be overemphasised that the role of the institution and the hierarchy is extraordinarily important for preserving the public function of and public interest in government. It cannot be replaced by the market; it cannot be replaced by a sort of outsourcing-whatever word you want to use. Strong government has an extraordinary important role to play, but as a nimble steward of the conversation and embracing entrepreneurs and innovators.
If I may, I will give another quick example from government, which is the adoption by the US Department of Education, when the Obama administration began, of a technique of saying, "We’re going to give out funds," which is what they do. "If you have an idea with a small amount of evidence, we will give you a small amount of money. If you have a large amount of evidence that something works at scale, we will give you a large amount of money." It was a setting of some basic standards, but a relaxing of the way they adopted innovation. Instead of saying, "We’re going to promulgate all the innovations out of Washington," they said, "We will look for innovations wherever they come from, give money at different ranges, and become much more nimble in how we support innovation." It is the government corollary to the example I gave from business. In response to your question, I think that is an interesting model. It is not abdication or outsourcing; it is an evolution.
Chair: You have been giving us some extremely comprehensive answers. Looking at our brief, the questions we have to ask have all been very comprehensively covered. Mr Halfon has a final question-very briefly, if you can.
Q84 Robert Halfon: Mr Hampson, what is it that made your council take the decision in the first place to go down this path? What was the genesis or catalyst that led you to what you are doing?
Roger Hampson: In 2006, we simply decided we wanted to use all these new tools to explore what they meant for government, because of the basic, obvious, simple proposition that they are going to change local government. We did that because I thought it would be a good idea.
Q85 Robert Halfon: Was there pressure from the councillors as well, or was it just from the officers?
Roger Hampson: It is all about getting three political parties to slowly move towards changing.
Q86 Robert Halfon: Has it been supported by all the political parties?
Roger Hampson: Yes, absolutely. The competition amongst political parties now is to say who is using these things most and why they are not doing more of it. Our next step will be that we will permanently consult on all our major decisions; we have built a consultation engine that will do that. The competition will be around who is or isn’t using that best.
Q87 Robert Halfon: Could you recommend to the Committee any individual who has been putting this digital engagement into practice that we should either see or receive written evidence from?
Chair: You could write to us.
Professor Noveck: I may have a long list rather than a short one. I will leave you with two quick points. We have to start thinking about training not simply the civil servant of today but the civil servant of tomorrow. That means education and training, focusing on that as part of remit and thinking not only about the person studying political science or public policy but the person studying computer science and engineering, and getting them engaged with issues of public interest and import and functions. It is extraordinarily important, because we have to start this process now.
You gave the world the innovation of the jury in the 12th century. You need to do that again for the world, but we need not simply one institution or way of engaging but ten, a dozen, a hundred new ways, because we do not fully understand how to do this well. The technology is evolving, and we must figure out how to evolve. The technology moves at lightning pace and the institutions move at a snail’s pace. Getting these two things to work together effectively is going to be an evolutionary process. Now is that difficult birthing stage. We need to simply try lots of things, measure what works and then do more of it.
Roger Hampson: To follow up, I was actually astonished in 2006, when we first started thinking about this, about how little the organs of democracy were using this new technology. Actually, I am still astonished by how little of it we do. There has been lots and lots of really good progress: on opening up data; on discussing using these tools. I am still astonished about how little they are used.
Look at the extraordinary budget position in the United States at present, in which incompatible views will have to be made compatible because the numbers will have to add up at the end of the day. There is a whole range of tools you could design and use to involve the nation in that and, politically, to get the enormous gain on this very difficult thing you have to do, through the compromise and consultation you have to do. Very, very little of that is going on. Ultimately, it is portrayed as a debate between the Speaker on the Hill and the President. That is such an absurd way, in the 21st century, to be making complex decisions.
Q88 Chair: Cat Tully will have the last word. The point is that public engagement is not about abdicating leadership.
Roger Hampson: It is the exact opposite. We all believe in a bunch of simple things. We believe in an open society, open science, plain language, clarity about what decisions are and what decision making is. Actually, the world is enormously complicated. It used to be the case that if you were going to make a decision, you either had to get the maximum number of people in a room-so 20something for a cabinet, 600 and something for a parliament-and that was it; or you could ask a question, which was "yes" or "no", on which of the candidates people wanted to pick. The You Choose tool gives you more options than the entire population of the planet could use between now and the end of the planet. We have sliders with 200 points on, and there are 20 sliders. It is perfectly possible with the technology to take and produce from it a simple statement of what people want. Those tools are enormously powerful in taking complexity and making it simple. What leaders need to do is take the simple things and use the complexity to make the decision. It is difficult, but the tools are there, and I am astonished that people are not using them.
Catarina Tully: I would like to finish on one point: this is about democracy and citizenship, not about the tools. If you look at the Civil Service Reform Plan, the word "citizen" is there only three times; the first time is on page 8. So, I think the whole framing of this debate needs to be much more sophisticated. Yes, it is absolutely about having strong leadership of government, because all that we know, including the participation through pathways research by Involve, indicates that what gets people engaged-whether they are experts; whether it is deliberation; whether it is social media-is around expectations: whether they feel as if they have been listened to, and whether the parameters for engagement have been clearly set out. Government has to manage those joins between what is up for grabs at the national level and at the local level, and the division between the two. This is why it is really important that the Government develops a clearer view of what its national strategy is, and has an emergent strategy where it listens very deeply to people all the way through the process, using different tools and for different purposes.
Chair: Thank you very much. We have had six extremely enthusiastic witnesses today. We have certainly enjoyed this session; it has been very interesting. How interesting it is also that it ties in to the work we are doing on Civil Service reform, and the work we have done on strategic thinking and leadership in government. It has been fascinating. Thank you very much indeed.