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The Data Needed for the Wiki Approach to Policy-Making Is Already Out There

26/06/2013 11:26 BST | Updated 25/08/2013 10:12 BST

Last week, the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) published a report calling for a 'wiki' approach to policy-making, with the aim of involving the public much more in the political process. It recommends that at all stages of the policy cycle, the public should be included with views, ideas, contributions, complaints and other general feedback. But how on earth is this possible with a public that has become so disconnected from the political process and so disenchanted with politicians?

Over the past decade, Britain has experienced some of the lowest voter turnout in its history, ranging from just 59 per cent to 65 per cent for general elections, compared to 71-83 per cent for the six previous decades. Things have fared worse in local elections, where the public is even less engaged. Elsewhere, with scandals facing Westminster year after year, public opinion of politicians is at an all time low. So with a public that seems politically ambivalent, how are they going to be drawn into this wiki approach?

The answer is that the public opinion is already out there. The public sector, by its very premise, is sitting on the biggest data set that currently exists. It is not just the actions of each citizen when they use a public service that generates data - the public are already readily volunteering their own opinions via social media.

You only have to observe the trending topics on Twitter when political events like the Queen's Speech, a Budget or another major act of law is being debated in the Commons, to see how engaged the public is. During political broadcasting and panel shows such as Question Time, the social network is often flooded with the public expressing opinions. Anyone in the country, who previously had no involvement in the political process, can pick up their phones and tweet what they think about the latest government policy as it is being debated live on TV. These are conversations which would have previously taken place in queues at the village post office, or by the office water cooler, unheard and unanalysed. Now, they create data that could help inform government policy more so than anything else that came before it.

Large organisations are already accessing this information. UN Global Pulse, a United Nations initiative, has used Social Media Analytics and Text Analytics to dig into data from 500,000 blogs, forums and news sites in the US and Ireland. It compared mood scores and conversation volume with official unemployment statistics to see if changes in these measures were indicators of spikes in unemployment. Global Pulse's analysis revealed that increased chatter about cutting back on groceries, increasing use of public transport and downgrading one's car represent leading indicators of an unemployment spike. After a spike, surges in social media conversations about such topics as cancelled holidays and foreclosures or evictions shed light on lagging economic effects. This provides real-time insights for policymakers trying to mitigate the effects of increased unemployment.

The Hong Kong government's Efficiency Unit is a single point of contact for handling public inquiries and complaints on behalf of many government departments. It has also made use of similar tools, recognising that there are social messages hidden in the complaints data, which provide important feedback on public service and highlight opportunities for service improvement. Rather than simply handling calls and e-mails, the Unit draws on complaints information to gain a better understanding of daily issues for the public. Despite most complaints being in text format, it is now able to consolidate all the information and uncover hidden relationships through statistical modelling. The government can then understand hidden social issues so departments can act before they become serious, leading to improvements in public services.

The UK government needs to tap into this type of data, and other data created by the public as events and policies unfold. Innovating in this way by socialising the policy process could dramatically increase efficiency within government. Why? Because instead of needing to rely on small focus groups or - much worse - going with political instinct and ignoring or being unaware of public opinion, the government could make much more informed decisions.

Recent research we conducted with Dods showed that 55 per cent of civil servants felt there was "no change" in the public sector's use of empirical evidence to inform new policies under the coalition. While it isn't all bad news, as evidence-based decision making and the use of data analytics to inform policy have increased in other areas of government, it is still not a uniform change and this is what's needed to have any real impact.

The government is making inroads. Its Digital by Default strategy will bring the services it offers into the 21st century and ensure that data it collects in the future is much more easily accessible, with digital at the focus from the ground up. Elsewhere, Tim Kelsey, the National Director for Patients and Information, is leading the charge on digitising the NHS in an effort to end the 'unsafe' and 'inhuman' conditions forced upon patients in hospital waiting rooms without huge technological changes.

Francis Maude, when asked during the recent PASC investigation how public engagement in the new wiki approach could be measured, responded "The amount of engagement? Satisfaction with policy? The solution is a general election."

In fact, if the government were to socialise the policy process, it would need to wait until a general election to gauge public reaction. With the information provided through big data analytics, public reaction could be tracked in real time. If you apply this data throughout all levels of the policy process, as is the goal of the PASC wiki policy approach, we could see the most involved and engaged public yet. One where the public sector isn't a one-way channel that sees a government service simply provided to the public, but one that is built together.