Bringing down the houses

img_0622We’re very lucky to have a democratic political system, where we all get a say in who represents us in Parliament.

But having watched how the Housing and Planning Bill has been put together, perhaps it’s time to consider alternative ways of making and shaping policy that affects us all.

Housing is, for all of society, a vital and surprisingly emotionally charged subject. It is a refuge, a place to build a family, an investment and so many other things.

And making policy is complicated, but it is made more so when politics takes over.

As I said in my 2016 predictions, the Chancellor, at the Autumn Statement, said ‘above all, we choose to build the homes that people can buy. For there’s a growing crisis of home ownership in our country’.

Rightly or wrongly, this specific view of the housing crisis has driven all subsequent policy decisions.

Then we come to the Bill itself. Late night/early morning debates, potential conflicts of interests and a swathe of last minute amendments all meant the Bill didn’t get the attention or detailed debate it deserved – as the Independent dramatically pointed out.

I’m not going to go into the merits of the policy itself, but I do want to discuss how policy is made.

How to make a Bill

Here is a video from the UK Parliament, explaining how a Bill becomes law. It sounds good, right?

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How laws are made

But once we’ve cast our vote, the policies which are made and voted on by our MPs for the following five years may no longer be representative of our views.

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Homeowner nation: In 2015, homeowners were the Conservative’s core support

The party with the majority, despite any fuss and bluster of the opposition, will often win out due to their sheer numbers. But how many of those MPs voting deeply understand the issue? How many have been whipped into line?

Experts, from industry or the third sector for example, can submit evidence to the committee, and some are called to give evidence.

But it is the experts trying to influence the politicians, when perhaps it should be the other way round.

So what are our options?

Turn thinktanks into policymakers

Thinktanks are a great place to test policy outside of the parliamentary process.

Let’s expand their role, perhaps create a broad independent thinktank, with representatives across the political spectrum, to co-create policy that meets the government’s manifesto commitments, while balancing the needs of the rest of society.

Crowdsourcing comment

In 2013, Iceland attempted to crowdsource their new constitution. A monumental task which, ironically, ultimately failed when it reached parliament, but there were two particularly unusual features that we could learn from.

The first is a National Forum, made up of a demographically representative group of 950 citizens. This group were brought together to discuss the principles and ideals they wanted to see in their country.

The second was an assembly of constitutional drafters, which excluded professional politicians. Again, independent from politicians, with experts and policymakers making policy.

From digital inclusion to digital engagement

I saw recently the Government Digital Service are now turning their focus on digital engagement.

So let’s get policy into the public arena through digital channels.

Back to Iceland, they received around 3,600 comments on their constitution via Facebook, Twitter, email and mail. Pretty good stats.

I got in touch with the head of GOV.UK, Neil Williams (@neillyneil), to ask if the 2011 vision for online consultation and policy engagement had ever progressed. They’ve achieved so much with GOV.UK, but this had not taken off.

He said it there is momentum in government and maybe it was time to revisit this idea.

I hope they do, opening up government, making policy more independent with crowdsourced ideas can only lead to more creative solutions, generate buy-in from the public and ultimately shape better and fairer policy.

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