Open Policy Making

Creating government policy with direct contributions from external pl
John Kenney, Kristofer Bergmann

Open Policy Making refers broadly to the process of creating government policy with direct contributions from the public and other external parties. It includes the mindset, process and tools that create an “open by default” environment for governments to engage with citizens and other stakeholders in the design and delivery of stronger policies and programs. The “opening up” of policy making requires that policy makers go out and speak to service users and the wider public, as well as embrace new tools to make the process more collaborative and transparent.

As defined by the UK Cabinet Office Open Policy Making team, “Open Policy Making is about better policy making: being open to new ideas, new ways of working, new insights, new evidence and experts.”

Open Policy Making typically incorporates actions related to open data, citizen and stakeholder engagement, and crowdsourcing to design policies, programs and services, with different aspects of the policy cycle corresponding to different tools and processes. These actions can be supported by web 2.0 technologies, and allow for a broad range of stakeholders, new analytical techniques, and agile approaches to policy and program design. It is thus consistent with Canada’s Open Government Action Plan 2014-16.


  • Inclusive, two-way engagement strengthens relationships and builds trust between government, citizens and other stakeholders.
  • Collaborative policy processes inform a collective (government and other stakeholders) understanding of opportunities, challenges and actions needed to address complex public problems.
  • Tapping into the “wisdom in crowds” via open data, challenges and crowdsourcing invites diverse perspectives, ideas and solutions.
  • Behavioural and data-driven insights informed by user research (quantitative and qualitative) tell us not just what is happening, but why, which may lead to more effective policy, program and service design and delivery.
  • Provides an opportunity to craft policies that address considerations identified by those who may be impacted by policy decisions themselves.


  • Open Policy Making requires a shift to an “open by default” mindset as well as simultaneous adoption of the appropriate tools and processes to engage with citizens and other stakeholders. A new mindset or collection of tools/processes alone may not lead to improved outcomes.
  • Availability of tools and processes to citizens and stakeholders is an important consideration, as it is difficult to ensure equal opportunity to engage and provide input.
  • Process and tool selection may be limited by requirements for specific expertise or technological familiarity. As a result there may be a need for accompanying services and technical support.

Policy Opportunity

  • Provides a frame for the public sector to adapt how and with whom it designs and delivers policies and programs, thereby increasing engagement of the public and new partners in the policy making process.
  • Support experimentation in the public service and among policy makers, as well as pulling diverse perspectives and expertise from within and outside the public service to generate ideas and solutions.
  • Small-scale experimentation allows for smart risk taking and policy design, such that failure is seen as an opportunity to learn. Lessons are then built into the next iteration, rather than building and launching longer-term programs without initial testing.
  • Allows policy to be more agile and reflective of shifting public priorities, improving trust and public buy-in to the policy making process.
  • The federal government has committed to directly engage Canadians in policy-making via crowdsourcing, accelerate open data initiatives, and experiment with new instruments and approaches to support of evidence-based policy and decision-making.


  • Open policy making requires alignment of various processes within a larger organization, including communications, information technology and management, etc. (as opposed to a singular focus on policy activities). Particular questions may arise with respect to the openness of decision-making among senior executives and how to treat items of Cabinet confidence.
  • There may be a tendency to focus open policy making in areas of service delivery, where the public directly interacts with government; however, this does not encourage greater public or external involvement in priority-setting writ large.
  • Inevitably there will be some degree of conflict between various parties with respect to a specific policy area; as a result, some stakeholders may feel excluded when specific input is not reflected in a particular policy decision.
  • Evaluating success will depend on a number of factors, and may require different elements at different stages of the policy cycle. Measurement of “intangibles” such as better decision-making that results from an initiative may also be difficult to communicate to management or other audiences.
  • Engagement should reflect the degree to which a particular policy challenge is collectively understood. If it is not well understood, engagement could focus on other experts, stakeholders and users to understand opportunities and barriers; a well understood challenge might consider engaging others for ideas and possible solutions, and testing those solutions on a small-scale prior to more fulsome programming.
  • The federal role vis-a-vis other jurisdictions and stakeholders is important when considering open policy making, as the emergence and agility of new societal actors, proliferation of data and mobility of talent and resources may require governments to reconsider their role as a policy solution provider in some contexts. It may be that the most effective federal role is as a convener, mobilizer and catalyst to support the conditions for others to solve public problems in innovative ways.
  • Effective execution may require attracting, developing and/or tapping into new skills and expertise inside and outside of the public service, including citizen and digital engagement, data science, behavioural insights and citizen-centred design.
  • Open policy making is a process and thus requires time and space to meaningfully engage and work with stakeholders to design and test solutions.
  • The breadth of ‘open dialogue,’ which can take the form of in-person and on-line consultation, deliberation and/or collaboration, requires that users understand the differences between public opinion research, consultations and user research. Corporate enablers should be consulted early in the process to ensure privacy, IT security and procurement requirements are considered if and when required.

Government of Canada

  • Open Government
  • At Natural Resources Canada, Open Government has been heavily weighted towards information management and science and technology. Initiatives include:
    • Open Science, an interdepartmental initiative focused on open access, open data, public engagement and required IM/IT infrastructure; and
    • the Federal Geospatial Platform, an interdepartmental initiative focused on aggregating and facilitating the internal use of federal geospatial assets, and has a set of open functions for public use (Open Maps).
  • Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat Directive on Open Government
  • NRCan’s Innovation Hub is working with the Canadian Forest Service, Office of Energy Efficiency (OEE) and other partners to support two code-free hackathons and NRCan’s participation in the Canadian Open Data Experience (CODE) 2016.
  • NRCan’s OEE is working with PCO Innovation Hub on a citizen-centred design project that has included crowdsourcing, iteration and prototyping. It will yield spin-off projects, including randomized control trials.
  • NRCan’s Innovation and Energy Technology Sector (IETS) is exploring using citizen challenges and prizes to foster S&T innovation.
  • Public Health Agency of Canada - Play Exchange
  • Global Affairs Canada - Open policy development, Open Data for Development Challenge [a number of links to this past initiative are broken; David Eaves provides a good overview]
  • Immigration, Citizenship & Refugee Canada - Brainstorming Settlement Solutions
  • Grand Challenges Canada
  • Employment and Social Development Canada - National Call for Concepts for Social Finance

Best in Class

  • Government of UK Cabinet Office Open Policy Making Team is a leader in Open Policy Making, as the UK has made this a cornerstone of its civil service reform plan (2012).
  • Examples from other leading edge organizations can be found on the Observatory of Public Sector Innovation including:
    • Australia - Social Enterprise Development and Investment Funds, The Family Partnership Model, Participatory foresighting for irrigation R&D planning
    • Denmark -, Coherent Patient Experience, No Red Tape: Government Encounter, Everyday Work Safety, To Kickstart Entrepreneurs, Improved Service Produces Growth
    • UK - Applying behavioural theory to collecting tax debts, The Work Programme, What Works Network, Friends and Family Test, Co-designing a new third sector funding scheme, An Inspector Calls: Citizen-Led Service Inspection
    • US -, Citizen Archivist Initiative, LAUNCH, Rebuild by Design
    • Finland - Lakewiki Web Service, Healthcare in Bars and Restaurants, Promoting older adults' wellbeing and coping in Northern Finland, Living Lab Environments, Digitising Finnish history using crowdsourced volunteers, Cardboard Hospital