Citizens, Policy Co-Production, Politics, and the Public Sphere

Citizens, Policy Co-Production, Politics, and the Public Sphere

Mary Griffiths (University of Adelaide, Australia)
Copyright: © 2015 |Pages: 21
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8553-6.ch004


In this chapter the contextual, political and design features of policy co-production are assessed. Public consultations remain high-risk/high gain for governments, citizens and the administration. Successive Australian governments have encouraged the Australian Public Service (APS) to support citizen-centric policy formation. In 2011 under a progressive Labor government, two approaches to design of public consultations were successful: the Clean Energy Legislation Package, and the Digital Culture Public Sphere and Discussion Paper. In 2014, a newly elected conservative government made an unsuccessful attempt to consult on amending s18c of the Racial Discrimination Act (1975). Theoretically, the constructivist approach combines the literature on modes of e-government research, citizens as agents in policy, e-government success factors and participatory media, with evidence of institutional reform thinking, and the illustrations of practice and outcomes provided by the three case studies. Methodologically, the data is drawn from public domain materials.
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The approach taken in this conceptual chapter is to sidestep normative concepts in e-government research in favour of a detailed analysis of national engagement principles and practices as they are illustrated in three Australian consultations, one of which takes place since a change to conservative government, and against a background of renewed hostilities and contentious public debate. The study’s research question is: what are the context-specific and issue-specific factors impacting on e-government success in the area of policy consultation? Associated questions include: by what criteria can policy coproduction success be measured? Is citizen centricity in policy, as advised in public service consultation best practice principles, evident in the design of policy consultations? How does thinking about citizens as agents and not targets of policy play out as a technique of engagement in the three case studies? Is shared governance an achievable outcome in the short term? Finally, what does the third consultation on proposed changes in 2014 to s18c of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) (1975) illustrate about the play of publics and politics governing the policy engagement area? These questions raise significant issues about the management of policy consultation practice and governance in the public sphere. The design and processes of consultations illustrate designers’ embedded values, and implicit judgments made about the complexity of policy issues, and citizens’ capacities and willingness to engage. The success of online consultations also depends on how citizens are conceptualized in the process of coproduction; on public sphere and contextual factors; design features; and on the scale, opportunities, and the quality of participation supported.

Initial factors hypothesized as impacting on the success of policy co-production include a) how the citizen is framed as an agent in policy making; b) civil society’s existing online participation protocols; c) political issues; d) the comprehensiveness of decision-making resources offered; e) the match of the consultation design to the policy issue; f) the point in the policy cycle when public consultation occurs; g) the transparency of the governance of communications; and h) timely feedback to participants; i) the transparency of the consultation archives.

For the first of the two 2011 case studies, I select one aspect of a larger, more complex suite of consultations, The Clean Energy Legislative Package (2011). The full policy package consultation was conducted amidst a fiery, hostile public sphere debate about the human impact on climate change. Time factors also impacted as a minority government was under pressure to steward the Bills through to rapid implementation early in 2012. The challenges faced by the government agency were manifold. Priority strategies incorporated provision of accurate resources, visualizations, and impact modelling, and the use of external bodies and websites as the sources of authoritative information. The second smaller case study involved the co-production of a Digital Culture Public Sphere discussion paper with creative industries’ workers, and designed as a technique, and as an outcome. Government engaged with digital experts and practitioners, crowd sourced their industry and policy ideas, and built a digital culture peer community through the extensive use of familiar participatory online design tools and techniques. In the differences between the two cases lie important lessons about citizen empowerment and the success of a crucial aspect of e-government: facilitating citizens’ role in policy formation. Analysis of the third consultation highlights even more strikingly than the first case study, the impact of political ideology; and of the intensity of public reaction to the Attorney General’s proposal to amend s18c of RDA. After the consultation received over five thousand submissions, the Prime Minister withdrew the Amendment proposal ‘in the interests of national unity’ (Aston, 2014). Only fully redacted submissions are available on the government website for public scrutiny. This event, it could be argued, marks a significant retreat from an e-government trajectory of co-produced policy. Yet the withdrawal was, again arguably, an appropriate response to the exercise of public will, exerted through communication means other than official consultation submissions, such as online media and activism.

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