Scrutiny of strategic thinking in government

Evidence to the Liaison Sub-Committee, Submission by Involve

01. Summary

We would like to thank the Liaison Sub-Committee for its invitation to submit a response to its inquiry into strategic thinking in government.

Many of the major challenges of our time require continued strategic leadership, engaging with complex problems across several Parliaments. There is a growing practice that demonstrates that engaging the public leads to better and more effective policy and implementation, particularly when looking at issues than span Parliaments. When given the authority, evidence and time, everyday people can help take on difficult questions, side-step political divides, and deliver sensible answers to the big challenges we face.

For example, Ireland has used effective public engagement - particularly citizens’ assemblies - as a means to tackle strategic, politically challenging issues ranging from gender equality to constitutional reform, abortion to their most recent process on drug use. These processes consistently provide recommendations from the public that lead to substantial constitutional and policy change. Over the last decade, this approach has become an important part of the Irish democratic process. It plays a major role in informing wider public debate on important issues, and helping the government to set a course for the future that is backed by the public.

These methods are being used to engage strategic, complex problems at a local and regional level in the UK too. There have been hundreds of public engagement processes across the UK in recent years, such as Scotland’s Climate Assembly working with the public to identify how to reach net zero by 2035 and Jersey’s Citizens’ Jury on Assisted Dying paving the way for a legislative process to legalise assisted dying in certain circumstances. At a national level, Climate Assembly UK set a policy direction for how the UK can achieve net zero, and the Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care set the agenda for how adult social care could be funded in England in the future. Most recently, the Justice Committee engaged the public as part of its inquiry into sentencing policy, supported by Involve. This led to the Committee’s conclusion that,

‘Instead of simply adopting a reactive approach to sentencing policy, the Government should develop a structured mechanism for engaging the public on sentencing policy.’

Select committee scrutiny will need to bear this in mind; Committees will want to consider scrutinising the extent and effectiveness of public engagement both at the governmental and departmental level. It may be necessary for select committees to step in where scrutiny shows either that public engagement has been ineffective, or there are key missing voices from the government or department’s strategy process.

In our response, we focus on questions that relate to transparency and supporting the public to understand the strategy development process, and on those where we believe more capacity, skills and knowledge will be required by both Government and Parliament.

02. What government should explain or publish about its overall strategic concept

Supported effectively, public, civil society and stakeholder input will improve government and departmental strategy. We explain in our answer to the next question the machinery the government will need to formally engage the public in the development and formulation of strategy. However, all three actors will want to, and will, engage informally. In order to do this effectively, in a way that supports the strategy process rather than disrupting it, they will need the following information, all of which should be published with explanation in a timely fashion to support them to engage should they wish to.

        A central (or departmental) register of departmental strategy processes which includes information on their timelines and how to inform each process.

        A summary and detailed description of each strategy process, its timeline, where in government it is being coordinated, what key questions are being asked, the evidence sources it has identified, and how the final decision will be taken.

        Information on formal public, stakeholder and civil society engagement which will be carried out and how these different actors can get involved.

        A summary and detailed description of how the overall strategic concept and process supports and guides departmental strategy development.

Once the strategy has been developed, the government should publish a summary outline and detailed description of the strategy, the evidence which has been used to inform it, and information about how the government overall and departments separately will use it to develop and deliver strategy in separate policy domains.

Separately, the government should publish the indicators it will use to assess the effectiveness of implementation and how stakeholders, civil society and the public can contribute evidence to inform this monitoring and evaluation.

03. What additional machinery of Government, knowledge and skills are necessary to support strategic thinking and effective strategy and delivery

An effective overall strategy for the government will not be emergent from the sum of individual departmental strategies. There are too many trade-offs,  and areas where significant issues, such as climate change, for example, impact in different ways on departmental strategies. Departmental strategies have to be shaped and informed by an overall government strategy developed by the Prime Minister and Number 10.

In its evidence to the committee, the IfG argues that the UK has a weak centre of government. We will not duplicate the IfG’s evidence, or that of other contributors to the inquiry. We will focus instead on the machinery the government will need for effective public engagement to inform the development of an overall strategy once the central strategic capacity has been developed.

The government has two institutions which have built up considerable knowledge of the methodologies of how to open up strategic thinking and involve the public in doing so: Policy Lab and Sciencewise. Neither are placed sufficiently centrally to support the open development of an overall, central government strategy which effectively involves the public. As a result, the Government will need to develop this capability, both to lead the public engagement on the development of central government strategy, and to support departments to do the same as they develop their own strategies in support of the central strategy. Both Policy Lab and Sciencewise are well placed to demonstrate how to develop this central capability. Involve would be happy to provide further support where helpful. This capability which will need to include:

        Both political and bureaucratic support and understanding of the role that effective public engagement can play in the development of strategy;

        Sufficient time during the strategy development process to enable the public to engage effectively in the development of the strategy;

        Sufficient budget to commission and deliver any public engagement required;

        The skills and capacity within the civil service to develop and manage an effective commissioning and deliver process for the public engagement;

        A central library of the outcomes of public engagement processes focused on strategy development. This will help to build a shared understanding of public perspectives to inform (and reduce the resources needed for) future strategy engagement processes.

04. How Select Committees consider strategic questions

As we note above, the public have an important role in supporting the development and implementation of strategy. Select Committees should therefore explore the following question: how effective was the public engagement a department has carried out as part of its strategy development process? Given the critical importance of a whole of government strategy to inform the development of departmental strategies, there is also a role for the Liaison Sub-Committee to explore this question for the central strategy development process.

Key questions Select Committees will want to explore include:

  1. Were the public involved in the strategy development process?
  2. How effective was this engagement? Was the right type of process used for the questions being asked? Were the public given enough time to engage effectively? Was the process resourced sufficiently? Was the evidence used to inform the public taking part in the process fair and balanced?
  3. To what extent did the public impact on the strategic vision, objectives and priorities? What is the evidence to demonstrate this?
  4. Were there any critical public perspectives, particularly communities of geography or interest, missing from the public engagement process?
  5. How effectively was the engagement process, and its impact on the final strategy, communicated? Is it clear to the public how they can contribute to the implementation of the strategy as well as its monitoring and evaluation?

Select Committees may judge that effective public engagement was not carried out in the development of a specific strategy, or that important voices were not heard or considered, and that this may have weakened the resulting strategy. In these cases, Select Committees may wish to consider commissioning focused public engagement to explore the extent to which this is the case. We explore the skills, resources and knowledge Select Committees will require to carry this out in our answer below.

05. What additional resources, parliamentary procedure, knowledge and skills are necessary to support effective Select Committee scrutiny

The outcomes of public engagement processes have been treated as evidence to Select Committees in the past. We don’t see any need for a change in Parliamentary procedure.

The skills, knowledge and resources are similar to those needed by Government to commission and deliver effective engagement:

        Both political and bureaucratic support and understanding of the role that effective public engagement can play in the development of strategy.

        Sufficient time during the inquiry to enable the public to engage effectively in the development of the strategy.

        Sufficient budget to commission and deliver any public engagement required.

06. Conclusion

There are a wide variety of methods that can be drawn on to involve the public in developing, shaping and scrutinising strategy and its implementation. We are at your disposal to offer our knowledge, experience and learning.

07. About Involve

Involve is the UK’s leading public participation charity. We work to build a more vibrant democracy, where everyone can shape a society that works for all of us.

We need to make important strategic choices as a society. But, we are struggling to tackle the complex, generation-defining challenges, and people don’t have enough say in the decisions that affect their lives.

We know things can be done differently — every day our work shows that when given the authority, evidence and time, everyday people can help take on difficult questions, avoid political divides, and deliver sensible answers to the big challenges of our time.