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James Morris: Reinventing Policymaking as an Open Party

Morrisjames_1James Morris, the Director of Mind the Gap, writes his second article on the need for a more open, democratic and networked Conservative Party.

I argued in my previous post that the Conservative Party needs to become a different sort of party; one that is more open and responsive to the wider networks of the modern world.

If the party is truly serious about becoming more open, more relevant and more attuned to the world as it is today it needs to re-invent, as it has done many times in the past, the way it makes policy. The party needs to create a truly open culture which can act as a catalyst for a true intellectual renaissance ; a renaissance which will once again make the Conservative Party an engine of ideas for solutions to the long term problems the country faces.

Some argue that, since 1997, the party has not engaged in any genuine broad based policy making at all. Where new policies have been developed they have emerged out of the awkward clash between focus groups and the output of the traditionally structured policy unit. This has resulted in either policies of the ‘dog whistle’variety the political usefulness of which was highly dubious (immigration?) or of the ‘too clever by half’ variety (patient passports?) which merely resulted in confusing the wider public. Proper consultations have been all too rare and where they have been done they have been done in a piecemeal or tokenistic fashion.

If the party is really serious about becoming a more open party, readying itself once again for government, it needs to re-invent how it makes policy to ensure that the solutions the party offers to the wider public are grounded in a real understanding of the problems and issues those people face. A more open policy making process would ensure the party focussed relentlessly on developing solutions to the long term issues the country faces; solutions focussed on what is ‘right’ for the country rather than what is most politically convenient for the party.

Policy cannot be created in a vacuum. It has to emerge from a set of broad principles upon which the members of the party can agree. Political parties, even open and networked ones, cannot just become sponges for an unedited wish list. A more open party, though, would have the courage to keep its policy options open ended, allowing for lines of analysis to be followed, and unexpected and innovative solutions to emerge through engagement with the real world and not just from the minds of policy wonks. Creative ideas and research are important but these cannot be done in isolation; true policy innovation comes when ideas come into contact with the rough edges of the real world.

Ideas for new policy approaches must be sought outside of the traditional policy making structures. Policy making in a new, more open Conservative Party will involve creative engagement with the widest possible network of ordinary citizens through engagement with voluntary groups, businesses, churches, charities etc

A more open Conservative Party should engage, to borrow a phrase from the software industry, in rapid application development mode. Policies should be prototyped quickly and those prototypes should be tested and debated by as diverse a group as possible. The party should invite ‘outsiders’ into the policy making loop; stakeholder groups, user forums, and independent advisory panels are all good ways of entrenching a broader, more open approach to policy making; resulting in more rigorous, more grounded and, above all, more relevant policy solutions. The party should also make use of new technology to encourage as wider participation as possible in the testing of policy prototypes through on-line forums and consultations.

Policy making in a new, open Conservative Party, would be driven from a broad set of shared principles, would be relentlessly focussed on the long term, and would have been developed with the broad-based involvement of the wider public. One of the political legacies of New Labour will be that there will be whole series of issues which this government had been either incapable or unwilling to tackle. It is the historic responsibility of the Conservative Party, as has been the case so many times in the past, to re-invent the way it makes policy, so when we do return to government the party is ready to once again take the tough policy decisions the country so desparately needs.


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