How we built the toolkit transforming the way policy is made in the UK
When I joined the Cabinet Office Open Policy Making team 12 months ago I had no idea what policy was. I thought it was something ‘other people’ did, where elderly gentlemen sat in Whitehall and imagined up the policies of government and the civil service. I imagined Dickens writing characters that ‘did policy’ in the week and smoked cigars at the weekend.
To me, policy was a far off world of big words but little action. I knew what bad policy was from the news, but had almost no idea what process went into making policy (let alone good policy). As someone moving from the very publically successful digital movement I was concerned – had policy ever heard of a ‘user’? What was the actual experience of policy?
I imagined Dickens writing characters that ‘did policy’ in the week and smoked cigars at the weekend.
My concerns about policy were unfounded.
The Open Policy Making team at the heart of the British Government was asking the tough questions about what policy should be, how it should be created and how it should be experienced by people.
Its name gives a hint at the scale of their task. Making policy open, open to new ideas, new solutions, new approaches and ways of working and most importantly – open to new input. Input from experts and users alike – from the people that experience policy on the ground.
It was making policy more accountable for its actions, more reactive, more innovative and obviously – more open.
When I joined the team we had just launched perhaps our most important product – the Open Policy Making toolkit. The toolkit was a response to the question policymakers had been asking us over and over again: “how do I do this?”
The toolkit was a response to the question policymakers had been asking us over and over again: “how do I do this?”
It’s a good question. For months our team had been explaining what Open Policy was and Policy Lab had been showing how the best and most innovative policy could be designed and experienced by more users. But policymakers across the civil service wanted to be shown how to do it.
So we launched the toolkit to show people how to make more Open Policy. We wanted the 19,000 policymakers across government to be inspired about the things they could do. We never wanted to tell people what to do – we wanted to inspire them to test, experiment and become more open to change.
Within the first month the toolkit had 12,000 unique hits and had become a major resource for all policymakers across the UK and is being read by civil servants around the world.
But we knew that we couldn’t stand still. We had to keep the advice we gave and tools were offered at the cutting edge of innovative policymaking. We knew from user feedback (and personal use) that the experience of the toolkit was complex – finding things you could actually do was a little tricky, and reading about them took too long.
We mapped the journeys of policymaking and examined when people used the toolkit. Was it at the beginning of a project? the last few minutes? when they were told to by their boss?
So we sat down with policymakers and started to examine their needs. We mapped the journeys of policymaking and examined when people used the toolkit. Was it at the beginning of a project? the last few minutes? when they were told to by their boss? We also looked at how people used the pages of the toolkit – how far they scrolled down or read on a page. We did this to better understand policymakers and design a service that met their needs, whilst also helping them change their habits and culture to be more open.
From testing we quickly found that although people were aware of Open Policy Making, their definitions were all very different. So not only were we making a toolkit that inspired people about how to make better and more open policy – we wanted to codify what it actually meant to them more clearly.
Over the next few months we took the ideas from pen and paper to digital prototypes and finally to the latest toolkit that we launched at the end of January. You can read more about that design process on our blog. But more importantly – go and check out the toolkit.
But all this exciting work has been taking place at the same time as big changes to the way Open Policy Making works around government. After the 2015 election we looked at what we were doing and began to ask ourselves – are we still at the edge of innovation? What was the role for Open Policy Making as it became embedded in policymaking around government?
Open Policy had to move from being a central resource to one that exists organically across the civil service. One where each department has an embedded team and delivers the kind of innovative leadership we had tried to generate from the centre.
In many ways our work was done. We had created the movement – codified the idea and given people the tools to do Open Policy for themselves.
So it was decided that the central Open Policy Making team would close down. Not the idea or movement – but the team. Because in many ways our work was done. We had created the movement – codified the idea and given people the tools to do Open Policy for themselves. We were no longer needed.
So although we may be gone, the practice of open policymaking continues. Teams across government are looking at how to make their policies and the way they design them more open and user-led. Policy Lab has more work than ever and the latest version of the toolkit has seen a 400% increase in usage since it re-launched a few weeks ago.
And the toolkit will continue to adapt, change and react to the needs of policymakers. The innovators that test new ideas and bring them into government like Policy Lab and the Government Digital Service (GDS) are already writing new sections, creating new advice and signposting the policymakers of today to the ideas of tomorrow.
As someone who started in Open Policy Making with little idea of what policy was, I can tell you now that it’s a really exciting time to be a policymaker (or policy designer). From Policy Lab to the fantastic Ministry of Justice digital team, GDS, Go-Science and many other teams across the civil service, Open Policy Making is still fuelling innovation and change.
Check out the Policy Making toolkit for yourselves, help us improve it with feedback and ideas for new sections. Or even better – go and make better and more open policy yourselves.