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.
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.