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Government policy - a spotter’s guide

Later this month we will unveil another bit of our GOV.UK beta - the element that explains the work and workings of government. This is intended to replace the many separate sites run by government organisations, simplifying things for people who are personally or professionally interested in how government works and what it is doing.

(We’ve never settled on the perfect name for this bit of the project - we sometimes call it ‘the corporate platform’, we sometimes call it ‘Whitehall’, if you’ve been reading this blog you’ve probably come across both terms, but we mean the same thing. We will attempt to be consistent in future and call it ‘Whitehall’.)

In developing this component we've found ourselves returning frequently to the question: “what is government policy?”

Not “what is government policy on issue X” (a separate problem which I will return to in a minute) but, more philosophically, what is and isn't a government policy and how do you know when you’ve met one?

We're not the first to grapple with this. For example, in October 2008 the Information Commissioner’s Office needed to clarify its duties in regard to clause 35 of the FOI Act, which exempts government bodies from releasing information used in the “formulation and development of government policy”.

In this fascinating (no, really!) research paper commissioned from the Constitution Unit at UCL, they found:

“Policy and policy making is a well understood concept – but one which neither Whitehall nor Westminster has found it necessary to define with any rigour. […] There is simply no operational need to define at any given point whether what people are doing is formulating, developing, promoting or delivering government policy. [...] As a result of this lack of everyday need for a precise definition, the term policy is used within Whitehall in a very wide range of contexts.”

It's also interesting, perhaps, that the otherwise exhaustive glossary on the Parliament website omits any definition of policy, despite using the word lots across the site. And I even have it on good authority that there's no directly equivalent word for "policy" (as distinct from "politics") in French, German, Spanish, Swedish, Dutch, Danish or Italian.

Working definition

Our ambition in creating GOV.UK is radically to improve the user experience of government, and that includes explaining government policy in a clear and consistent way. The current Government is on record as saying: “It is our ambition to make the UK the most transparent and accountable Government in the world".

Being able to identify, aggregate and explain government policy is critical to our doing that.

The ICO study cited two workable definitions:

  • a course or general plan of action to be adopted by government, party, person etc. (OED)
  • the process by which governments translate their political vision into programmes and actions to deliver “outcomes”, desired changes in the real world. (Modernising Government White Paper, 1999)

We’d like to suggest a third, the one we’re working to in the beta of GOV.UK, which is:

  • statements of the government's position, intent or action

We're using that definition to gather (from a number of sources, including but not limited to existing websites) the policies led by several departments who are working closely with us on the beta. For the remaining departments, we will also be seeding the site with a few 'sample' policies extracted from their published business plans.

All these policies will then be grouped, by theme, into 'policy areas' (more on that in a later post) and tagged with the organisations and Ministers responsible for delivering them.

Towards a language for describing policy

To fully answer the question “what is government policy on issue X”, though, we need not only to identify government policies reliably but also to find a naming convention and consistent language to explain them.

We're trying out one possible approach to that in the beta, using a new ’policy definition’ format to apply a structured set of sub-headings on each policy, as below. The first two (‘the issue’ and ‘actions’) are mandatory headings, everything else will be optional - a flexible framework to describe policies of different flavours and at different life stages.

The issue - the problem or opportunity, and government’s aims

Actions - what government is doing/will do/has done to address the problem or seize the opportunity

Background - how the policy has developed to date, why the government has chosen this course and rejected other options, including the evidence

Engagement - who government has asked/is asking/will ask, when and how

Impact - who benefits or is otherwise affected

Bills and legislation - the legal framework in which this policy is operating, and how the policy might change that legislation

Partner organisations - what government and non-government organisations are involved, and in what capacity

Related news, speeches, publications and consultations - how the policy is evolving through announcements and publications (displayed automatically by creating associations in the publishing system)

The headings are experimental and might be wrong. The approach may, faced with the complex ebb and flow of a policy-making machine which lacks an “everyday need for a precise definition”, prove too simplistic.

But simplification is absolutely the point here. The goal is to produce a comprehensive, coherent, constantly updated list of everything government is saying it will do or is doing, and to allow people to dig into that information in ways that makes sense to them.

You’ll see the effect of this thinking in a few weeks when our beta is released. We’d love to know what you make of it.

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  1. Comment by A quick tour of Inside Government | Government Digital Service posted on

    [...] Government policy – a spotters’ guide [...]

  2. Comment by Explaining government policy on GOV.UK | Government Digital Service posted on

    [...] On the Inside Government team, we are definining a policy as ‘a statement of the government’s position, intent or action’. [...]

  3. Comment by Style v2 | Government Digital Service posted on

    [...] The biggest change is more guidance on writing policy pages. Neil Williams posted about having policy content on GOV.UK in February 2012. [...]

  4. Comment by Emily Jones posted on

    Does anyone know of a site where you can ask what a certain policy (on x) is and share information with others? I am having an interview for a job where I will be required to keep up to date with policies on advising young people...

  5. Comment by INSIDE GOVERNMENT – a few highlights | Government Digital Service posted on

    [...] We’ve also adopted a consistent and (we hope) relatively clear way to describe government policy. We think of it as ‘encylopedia-style’ and hope it will make policy more accessible for those who aren’t immersed in the intricacies of how government works. We’ve talked about the difficulties of doing this before. [...]

  6. Comment by Blurring boundaries | Government Digital Service posted on

    [...] GDS has to break down walls and work with domain experts regardless of where they’re from — the Whitehall project, which is in full sail, is a hubbub of graphic artists, designers, front-end developers, [...]

  7. Comment by Alex posted on


    Thanks for writing the post.

    One might say "policy" is a creation of an elite within the UK civil service and the Whitehall class, to create, maintain and enhance their roles and their jobs.

    In much the same way as the City creates "derivatives", and "CDOs", so civil servants will create NHS NPfIT, Better Connected, Healthier Together or Total Place policies. Their effects may or may not be similar - well intentioned design, costly outcomes

    @WillGuv is right to say keep it simple

    I am not aware of large quantities of user-centric policy development making it to the statute book. Petitions perhaps if they qualify, but that's only for HofC debate I think.

    It would maybe be more user-centric if the release enabled citizens to engage in dialogue with government directly, from their own individual home, through some form of interaction on-line. Forums, hot-seats, skype chats, mobile interaction -

    That would possibly be an example of more participative democracy.

    In a comment, you say

    ".....what we are doing with GOV.UK will make government more transparent and accountable...."

    and this sounds fair, but will it change anything for individuals ?

    I'm left thinking that an individual is still at the centre of a huge eco-system, over which they have no influence, and that system is not focused on empowering me.

    So far example I do not follow Health policy as it has been conforntational for ever. It's either "creeping privatisation" or "bureaucratic and unaccountable" or "broken".

    There is very little role for the individual citizen in DoH policy making, as the NHS prefers to maintain organisational control. GPs, Ministers and others are not rushing to seek our input either.

    You also say

    ".....The headings are experimental and might be wrong....."

    Without the Individual as a heading, I am left feeling this would benefit from more rigorous outside views, a radical look at the system design, a dose of cost-benefit analysis and a large pinch of external challenge.

    So thanks very much again for posting what is happening.


  8. Comment by Digital Engagement for the beta release of GOV.UK- our experience | Government Digital Service posted on

    [...] melded to great effect. We eagerly await the release of the next chapter of the GOV.UK story: the forthcoming Whitehall App beta. Rate this: Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. From: Beta of GOV.UK, Digital [...]

  9. Comment by Will Callaghan (@willguv) posted on

    I like your thinking Neil and am looking forward to seeing how all this fits together.

    I wonder if you can simplify the headings still further so you don’t even have to think about them, something like:

    1) The issue

    2) Our solution

    - Who’s affected

    - We’re working with…

    - We’re consulting with…

    - Background info (includes related legislation)

    3) Progress so far

    4) Related news, speeches etc

  10. Comment by dmossesq posted on

    Five points:

    1. There is an interesting implication hidden away in our concept of policy – Your definition of policy can affect the size of the civil service. The point is made clear in the Home Affairs Committee report on the Brodie Clark affair, Inquiry into the provision of UK Border Controls:

    14. the UK Border Agency is described as "an executive agency of the Home Office" but it is in fact an integral part of the Department. While it has its own management and budgetary structure, the UK Border Agency is still under the aegis of the Home Office and it no longer formulates its own policy—that is the responsibility of Home Office Ministers, on the advice of Home Office and UK Border Agency officials.

    If it makes its own policy, UKBA is an executive agency of the Home Office and its 20,000 staff are not civil servants. If the Home Office makes its policy, then the civil service just grew by 20,000.

    And that, in turn, might give the lie to Sir Gus O'Donnell's repeated pre-1.1.12 claims that the civil service is now smaller than it's ever been since <insert date>.

    2. Perhaps under the heading Impact, people need to know the costs to date, the projected costs and the benefits.

    3. Perhaps under a new heading, Parentage(?), people need to be able to see which politicians are in charge and have been in charge and which officials, names and titles. Whitehall has got to become accountable in a way which it isn't at the moment, please see It's all John's fault.

    A case in point, midata, a BIS policy with Ed Davey MP's name associated with it. Mr Davey has now moved from BIS to Energy and midata has become an orphan. Which politician now takes responsibility? And which officials?

    4. Are the politicians ever in charge? They don't seem to be at the NHS, where Sir David Nicholson carries on spending billions on NPfIT, apparently out of political control.

    5. What are you going to do when you can't explain the policy? midata is supposed to put people in control of their own personal data but neither Ed Davey nor the BIS people on his blog can explain how. Will you honestly report that the policy makes no sense and public money is being wasted? Or will the issue be fudged?

  11. Comment by Steph Gray posted on

    @Simon: I think there's people and there's people, insofar as policy information is concerned.

    Most of the current audience for information about what Whitehall departments are doing are a pretty specialised lot, in my experience: academics and students, staff, other departments' officials, lobbyists, policy officers in local gov, third sector or government relations teams, parliamentary researchers/MPs and media (plus a few others).

    I think Neil and team will struggle if they try and create a platform to explain policy to the public (though I suspect what they'll build will be a step forward from what there is now). The more specialist audiences often can relate to those silos, and are remarkably oriented towards government structures and even jargon - partly because they've had to be, partly because that's... professionalism, I suppose.

    Research tells use these audiences want timely, definitive information, at various levels of detail depending on the time they have available. My hunch is that they find the silos/ministerial attachments quite useful and that papering over those structural distinctions online isn't going to be a help to them. Imagine: 'Great, there's a new citizenship policy, but does that mean I call the CLG, MoJ, Home Office or Cabinet Office press office about it?'. Frankly, it's an argument against the single domain full stop when it comes to corporate content, but I'm on my own on that one.

    Somewhere else - hopefully the engagement elements of the platform being developed (I imagine) by the Digital Engagement team at GDS - there will be spaces for public engagement around policy issues. I'm not sure the Whitehall app, for now, is necessarily the place for that.

    • Replies to Steph Gray>

      Comment by Pete posted on

      Maybe the current audience for information on what the government is doing are a "specialised lot" because only specialists can understand (or are willing to put in the time to understand) the way it's currently presented.

      I'd much rather the man in the street at least had the plausible option to find out directly what government policy is on issue X, rather than receive a skewed version via the newspapers.

      • Replies to Pete>

        Comment by Steph Gray posted on

        Fair enough.

        But there's a question of time and interest too. By all means be clear, but on most policy issues as a citizen I'm more interested in the values behind them, and the services that I use or outcomes that I see as a result, rather than the mechanics of how they're implemented.

        Online aside, I think government and politicians often pitch the discussion between values, policy programmes and service feedback wrong.

        That's partly why newspapers are left talking about values and horror stories, skewed or otherwise.

  12. Comment by Simon Burall posted on


    A good post on a topic that seems blindingly obvious until you start to ask awkward questions. At that point you realise the amount of assumption that there i people inside and outside government are making about what they think they are doing.

    Richard notes that this might be a nerdy topic, and it is. In the terms of this post, it's one of little interest to many people, even though I believe that it is an important one. This highlights the main point I want to make, that most people interested in what government is doing won't be thinking about it in terms of 'what is government policy on x?' Rather they'll be thinking about it in terms of 'what can I expect from my hospital?', for example.

    Given that this understanding and ethos infuses, you may find it strange that I raise it at all. However, my point builds on Paul's in some ways as I think you do have a problem with the number of policy areas you'll have to cover. But there is a second problem; people aren't going to be interested in one policy silo, they are often going to be interested in issues that cross a number of policy areas. It won't even all be Whitehall policy, but rather EU legislation as enacted by Parliament and implemented by local government or arms length body. This raises challenging questions about how people can navigate in an intuitive way across different policy areas to build up the picture they need to see.

    Just finally: all of the comments are good and raise important issues; Lara's in particular is very difficult. At what point does explanation become promotion? A challenge as one person's explanation will be another's promotion. It may help to have some very clear editorial guidelines that are publicly available so that you can help people to understand what you are trying to do. The conclusion that you shouldn't be explaining the government's policy would be an absurd one to draw.

    None of this is to say you shouldn't do it. This is something that is really needed, I guess the key is not to over-promise.

  13. Comment by CE posted on

    One of the benefits of DirectGov is that the user does NOT get policy information coming up when they do a search. If you are going to combine corporate/policy stuff into the same website as the service delivery pages then please give users the option to exclude 'policy' hits from their search results.

    • Replies to CE>

      Comment by Neil Williams posted on

      Good point CE, and we're very conscious of that.

  14. Comment by Lara MacGregor posted on

    I personally find this idea very sinister. You can't 'explain' a government policy without promoting it. In this way, the same body with 'absolute control' over public sector websites will be required to help the government of the day stay in power. Some democratic safeguards are needed.

    • Replies to Lara MacGregor>

      Comment by Neil Williams posted on

      Sorry you feel that way. It's the job of the civil service to communicate and deliver the policies of the government of the day. Safeguards are already there, in the civil service and ministerial codes of practice. None of that changes as a result of bringing content together and making it clearer to follow. I would argue the opposite is true: what we are doing with GOV.UK will make government more transparent and accountable. That's what we're aiming for here.

  15. Comment by Paul Johnston posted on

    Great post and great objective, but I think you need to be realistic about the scale of the endeavour. You write: "The goal is to produce a comprehensive, coherent, constantly updated list of everything government is saying it will do or is doing". In an ideal world that is indeed what we would have, but you have over a hundred ministers and thousands of civil servants doing public stuff that relates to this 16 hours a day during the working week plus public and media activities at the weekend! So you have a huge volume of constantly changing, vague and confusing inputs plus a wish to be comprehensive and accurate for the well-informed and easy-to-take-in-a-glance for the newbie. Not easy! Ultimately, I think the only way this could be delivered is on some kind of wikipedia plus added governance model where the government sets the framework and acts as overall editor but where lots of the detailed work is done by citizens. (And something like this would probably have to be at arms-length from government rather than on otherwise every dot and comma risks being seen as a new government policy announcement). Failing that, you are surely talking about a basic summary of where an issue is updated perhaps once a week for the issues most in the news and perhaps only two or three times a year for the majority of issues. (P.S. be interested to know if you have estimated the number of issues the government is working on - 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 or 100,000? Even the last figure is probably not an upper limit, depending on how you define issue and if you go for the lower figures, then government will be constantly making and debating policy on things that fall below the threshold for being an issue).

    • Replies to Paul Johnston>

      Comment by Neil Williams posted on

      Thanks Paul.

      It's a massive and ambitious task, certainly, but perhaps not in the way you are imagining. Really this is about bringing together the publishing that government is already doing on numerous, separate corporate websites (like,, - but with more focus on the user need and more consistent, more user-centric formats. A lot of the detail of government activity will be covered in news articles, publications, consultations and speeches, and in supporting detail pages which hang off of these policy definitions. Have a look when we launch it and let me know what you think - you may well be right of course - or it may be that I'm not quite getting across what we are attempting to do.

      The Wikipedia idea is an interesting one, but less realistic I would argue. The culture just isn't there yet to get the buy-in from policymakers that it would need to fly. What we are building does, however, have some similarities with the information architecture of an online encyclopaedia: it's the experience we're going for. We won't quite get there in the first iteration, but I hope it will be significant progress.

  16. Comment by David Buck posted on

    I applaud you for keeping the text simple. It's something that is hard to do in Whitehall. One point on defining policy that I'm not sure comes across, is that government makes policy to improve or balance a system and more often than not to benefit a group of individuals (including individual organisations). I think it could be enlightening for some to realise that they gain benefits from governments policies everyday.

  17. Comment by Richard (@problybored) posted on

    Excellent post on a really important issue... one which might seem super-nerdy, but which I think really has the potential to transform the way government communicates with the public and to massively improve democratic accountability.

    I started writing a comment in response but it got rather too long, so I've published it as a blog post over here:

    One thing I didn't mention there was that the ICO model publication scheme also has a handy set of data types which it might also be useful to build into your content model, although they don't all explicitly relate to 'policy' as outlined here.

    * Who we are and what we do. Organisational information, locations and contacts, constitutional and legal governance.

    * What we spend and how we spend it. Financial information relating to projected and actual income and expenditure, tendering, procurement and contracts.

    * What our priorities are and how we are doing. Strategy and performance information, plans, assessments, inspections and reviews.

    * How we make decisions. Policy proposals and decisions. Decision making processes, internal criteria and procedures, consultations.

    * Our policies and procedures. Current written protocols for delivering our functions and responsibilities.

    * Lists and Registers. Information held in registers required by law and other lists and registers relating to the functions of the authority.

    * The Services we Offer. Advice and guidance, booklets and leaflets, transactions and media releases. A description of the services offered.

    • Replies to Richard (@problybored)>

      Comment by Neil Williams posted on

      Thanks for taking the time to respond in so much depth, Richard. On the two main points in your blog post:

      "publicly assign the policy to people or bodies"
      I think we will get there. It hasn't been a priority to build that in so far, but you've reminded me that I had something like this in my original wireframes earlier in the project, and we will return to it. What we are doing in the beta, though, is tagging policies with the organisations and minsters that lead on them. That is already a fairly significant jump forward from where we are now, but we absolutely can go further as we evolve this.

      "policy pages should also include the datasets which might provide some kind of evidence about what it is actually achieving"
      I agree - an ambitious goal but one we should absolutely be aiming for long term. I think what we are building right now is a necessary first step, and might be a catalyst, to providing this kind of hard evidence at the level of an individual policy. Identifying the policies in the first place, finding the language to explain them clearly, and bringing together existing publishing activity from multiple domains in a consistent way is a prerequisite.

      • Replies to Neil Williams>

        Comment by Richard (@problybored) posted on

        Thanks for the feedback Neil. Have been following the GDS journey for a while now and pretty much everything I hear from your team makes me feel more optimistic about its potential to deliver some important successes.

        Good luck with the work!

  18. Comment by Tim Lloyd posted on

    I like the headings - they should be the starting point for all corporate content. The Who, What, Where, When and Why equivalent for people writing about the stuff we collectively call 'policy'