Why No One is God When it Comes to Making Policy: the Hidden Maturity of Ministerial Views on Public Input

Jennifer Lees-Marshment

Jennifer is an Associate Professor at Auckland University, New Zealand.

We might not like to admit it, but our politicians are a lot more mature and reflective than we think. Our standard conception of political leaders is that after gaining power they focus on implementing their vision, using their authority and powerful resources of government to make decisions as to how best run the country.

However what is going on behind the scenes is a much more mature and deliberative process that integrates a range of perspectives, rather than favouring one authoritative individual. Yes, the elected politicians in ministerial, positions still make the final decisions. But more often than not, it is after a complex process of consideration.

Interviews with 51 government ministers in the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the US found that far from feeling powerful, ministers conceded their lack of power and inability to have all the answers. Ministers noted that “we’re in a different game now...the hierarchies of the western world are much more collapsed.” They recalled “I’ve put in smarter people than me to implement policy because that’s their strength not mine. I’ve put in other people that will become more the face of it and will drive the change.” And they fully conceded their lack of superior knowledge: “I don’t consider myself expert. I’d rather rely on other people and other expertise.”

Moreover, they proactively seek a range of input from different sources into their decisions, and reflect on it before making their final decision. This includes market research, policy research, meetings between members of the public and politicians both formal/organised and informal/spontaneous, public letters/emails/calls to politicians, formal consultation including legislative hearings, and deliberative events. These different forms of public input convey views, experiences, behaviour and knowledge of those in society who are not in government to those who are and make the decisions. It includes academic experts, policy experts, think tanks, stakeholder/interest groups as well as ordinary members of the public.

Ministers thus noted that “You shouldn’t rely on one source. No matter how good they are, everybody gets it wrong sometimes. If your focus for advice is too narrow then your decision making will be affected accordingly. It may not be the next decision or the decision after that, but it will be affected.’ Input has “It's got to come from a number of different sources in order to be valid in my view.” To be an effective decision maker ministers noted that “it’s important that you try to understand public opinion through a number of different mechanisms. If you just seek it through peak organisations or through one type of, or form, of information collection then there’s a risk that the information you’re getting is not accurate.”

When it comes to finding the best policy solution, no one is god, whether the minister, a policy expert, an NGO or member of the public. Whilst this might feel a bit threatening to some government staff, who are used to the idea that their policy knowledge and training gives them superior expertise, or NGOs who have built up close relationships with government over time and feel they have the right to be heard by ministers. My argument back would be this: if ministers, who are democratically elected, and work the longest and most stressful days of anybody, can concede they do not know everything, surely the rest of us can too? It doesn’t devalue any one of us; they are listening to all of us; but it’s just the best solutions come from a deliberative conversation with, and reflection on, all of our perspectives.

Moreover ministers themselves think that high quality public input helps them be leaders because it creates a broader range of options and possible solutions for leaders to consider. It improves policy by identifying perspectives politician had not thought of and identifies politically-doable solutions, where opposition might be overcome and creates consensus and mutual respect even on controversial issues in seemingly impossible situations. It can save money by avoiding the resource, policy and political costs of bad decisions and help create legitimacy and acceptance for decisions and therefore increases chances of implementation and compliance. Moreover, it creates long-lasting change by ensuring the change will be stand the test of time and enable leadership that lasts.

That is not to say that everything is well in government. Despite the wealth of public input finding its’ way to our leaders, the process for collecting and utilising public input in government still needs significant improvement. The quality is varied, best practice is ad hoc, and it often fails to connect effectively with political leaders who make the decisions and the energy and resources put into collecting it mean it often falls down in the gap between public and politician.

We therefore need to develop a permanent all-of-government unit to collect, process and communicate ongoing public input such as a Ministry or Commission of Public Input.

The consensus across academic and practitioner sources was we need something institutionalised; independent from yet connected to government; permanent; something like the electoral commission. A Ministry of Public Input needs to ensure that all public input collected is usable by ministers – so it is:

  1. Collected from a range of sources

  2. Using constructive conversations

  3. Focused on workable solutions

  4. That shows a range of options

  5. Focused on issues ministers want input into

  6. Politically doable

But despite the need for further development to maximise the potential value of public input within government, it is time we changed our perception of our political leaders. The decision and policy making process in government is much more deliberative and multi-faceted than we might realise from the outside. And the role of a modern government minister is much less alpha-male authority figure and much more of a judge who gets out and about to collect and consider constructive input from a range of people and groups and works with those communities to identify potential solutions. Far from being the source of all wisdom, they are the seeker and considerer of a collective wisdom. So whilst they still exercise power, they do so in a much more deliberative way than we previously thought.



For further details about the research see the book The Ministry of Public Input: www.palgrave.com/page/detail/the-ministry-of-public-input-jennifer-lees-marshment/?k=9781137017772 and a summary report at: https://leesmarshment.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/the-ministry-of-public-input-report-aug-151.pdf

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