Open policy making meets agile comms

This week I had the pleasure of working with Giles Turnbull again, as he led a session for our team about how we could do “agile comms”.

For a topic like this, Giles is the person you want facilitating that discussion. He literally wrote the book on it. It’s been the highlight of my week. And I hope it will spur my team into a next phase of brilliant policy making.

From open policy to agile comms

I think our team is actually very good at what civil servants call “open policy making”.

The classic Civil Service model for policy development is to think up stuff in a Whitehall ivory tower, publish an impenetrable tome that might generously be referred to as “a consultation”, and wait 6 months to respond to it. All this happens behind a veil of ignorance, disconnecting policy makers from the consequences of their actions.

It’s relatively rare that a civil servant in Whitehall has to come face-to-face with the people that have to navigate the labyrinths of policy they create.

Our team, though, prides itself on not doing that. We do go out to talk to people. We actively and consciously sit in rooms with them and whiteboard out our ideas to make our policy in real time. We bring them in for user research, to test prototypes of our work. We run public dialogues where people spend days of their time pouring over what we’ve come up with and work with them to iterate it through a deliberative process. Where traditional policy making tries to maintain a cool distance from everyone outside the Whitehall bubble, we try to co-create with our stakeholders opinion-havers1.

We speak to so many people on a regular basis that I’m surprised we are managing to keep up. And, in the not-too-distant future, when our legislation is done and we’re a real thing that people come to rely on, I reckon it’s going to become harder – and maybe too hard – to maintain trust with our network of opinion-havers if we only rely on the techniques we have used so far to build that trust.

That’s led us to start thinking about how our programme can adapt how we communicate with our networks. That’s what led us to think about agile comms.

Sparking lightbulb moments

I reckon that agile comms is to communications, what open policy making is to policy.

Where open policy making encourages sitting in rooms and using Post-It notes to – as Giles might say – “show your humbugs”, agile comms is showing your humbugs in other ways.

Blogging. Video. Social media. Posters. Writing or creating things with more permanence. Moving at the speed the work does. Doing that to build trust.

I’ve seen the benefit of this way of working first hand from having worked at GDS. Most of my team has never seen that, let alone done it. Confronted with it in the facilitated session this week, you could see some of the pennies drop.

Suddenly we’re having conversations about how we might create a public, written record of the team’s history and decision making; how we could use video to create layers; how useful it would be to have a bunch of URLs we could share with others when we get asked the same questions; or how we might just put some ideas out there for people to respond to.

Now we have to try it

I don’t think the demands of doing agile comms are much different from the demands of open policy making.

If, as a policy official, I’m willing to sit on endless video calls with different opinion-havers to explain our policy, I should be equally willing to write it down and put it on the web for anyone to see and for anyone to have an opinion about and respond to.

I think the session with Giles this week has helped spark lightbulb for enough people in the team now. The next step is that we have to go and try it!

  1. “Opinion-havers” is a term I am gleefully stealing from Giles. ↩︎