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Good ideas for government will come from unexpected places

Citizens’ ideas, as well as their involvement and support throughout the policymaking process and beyond the electoral cycles, matter

By Nadine Smith  

The Union Jack flying over Victoria Tower at the Houses of Parliament in London. Photo: PA

In the UK, innovators, entrepreneurs and policy wonks alike love to tweak and tinker with our often unfathomable system of government to find new answers to complex challenges. Ideas for government is a very competitive field. Indeed Dominic Cummings, Chief Special Adviser to the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, started the New Year with a call out for ‘data scientists, project managers, policy experts [and] assorted weirdos’ to enter Number 10 to help develop new solutions to the complex problems facing the country.

It seems like we are now entering an era where good ideas can come from anywhere and the public seems ready for it too. The types of ideas the UK will become best known for in the future, therefore, may well be those that come from unexpected places and ordinary people. And as we involve more people from across the country in generating new ideas, it is important not to just be fixated on or seduced by the first ideas that come but as much on how they can evolve, develop and improve over time.

The UK’s ideas for government and how it should operate have always been admired and often find themselves thriving all over the world. Delivery Units, What Works Centres and the Government Digital Service (GDS) all being prominent examples.

But we have learned that even the best ideas for government can take years to demonstrate public impact and evolve over time. This is especially true when it comes to policymaking as good ideas meet the complex realities of implementation—people and life outside of government, or even a new government. This is why citizens’ ideas, as well as their involvement and support throughout the
policymaking process and beyond the electoral cycles, matter.

This is an important lesson for governments worldwide also facing complex problems and looking for new ideas. They should not simply replicate our or another nation’s ideas or go with the first idea they hear, but learn from others’ experiences and adapt ideas for their own countries and with their citizens, while keeping open minds as to where good ideas can come from.

The International Civil Service Effectiveness Index (INCiSE) ranks the UK top in the world, based on policy, openness and regulation, among other indicators. But perhaps as we face ever more complex challenges, new measures of international effectiveness could also include the ability for governments to adapt ideas for the changing times and listen better to citizens as they do so.

Big questions we face, such as our immigration policy, housing supply and funding of social care (as well as old challenges that remain stubborn and resistant to traditional policy fixes), along with a message that we need to ‘level up’ in the UK, now means this more outward-facing culture for government will matter hugely, not just now but for the foreseeable future.

The government can feel confident now as it looks as much outside of central government for ideas as it does inside, because there is a growing understanding that citizens themselves want to shape policy in order to get things done. Citizens are pushing for a feeling of ownership and control, so too are our public servants. I believe that as people deliberate, they will find common ground, and as a nation, we will become more comfortable with adapting and changing ideas to meet new realities together too. We can even be more jointly accountable for our decisions.

In future, the ideas we export from the UK, therefore, may very well come from our citizens, and through the way we deliberate and listen to them, from towns that the world may never have heard of. And inspiration reassuringly can come from the UK’s home-grown experiments that deserve attention.

For example, an increasing number of UK local authorities are transforming relationships with people through a new kind of conversation that places decisions and power in the hands of those who are closest to the problems we face. These approaches are changing how people view accountability too. Just look at the London Borough of Camden’s listening projects, the way Wigan Council reimagined how it would make spending decisions with people, or how Lambeth nurses are helping one another cope with the load. These bold initiatives may lack the sexiness and safety of metrics to ‘prove’ success, but they are our new examples and they depend on authentic, trusting human relationships.

So before countries now rush to be like Camden and Wigan, they would be wise to understand that answers don’t always look exactly the same in every town, just as they cannot be exactly the same in every country. And even those undertaking these experiments are learning as they go.

Civil servants are themselves pushing an agenda across government here in the UK to be more citizen-focused. Many today are learning about ‘systems leadership’ and ‘human-centred design’, bringing members of the public into the decision-making process and listening at a much deeper level using, for example, ethnographic methods. Much can be gained when governments create and sustain cultures that allow public servants to listen and learn from failures as much as successes—what we at the Centre for Public Impact (CPI) call ‘failing forward.’

These may not sound like ideas that will definitely work but just the fact that we are opening our minds to new ideas that come from unexpected places and new methods is exciting because we are faced with a great opportunity to ‘heal a nation’ that all our citizens want to get behind.

Maybe we can become a country where we are admired as much for trying these new things together as we are for our instant successes—a new kind of soft power if you like. We can show others that we value all ideas, wherever they come from, that we listen, learn and adapt as we go and we never assume any one person or institution holds all the answers or should have all the accountability. Soon enough I am sure the world will follow and this will be an export that we can all be very proud of.

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