Neil Williams has written an excellent post on the Government Digital Service blog about what constitutes a government policy and how the single gov.uk website (now in beta) should present information about it to citizens.
The post sets out how the gov.uk team is using as a working definition of policy "statements of the government's position, intent or action".
This includes mandatory information on the issue and actions being taken in response to it, plus optional information on the policy background, who is engaged with it, who is being affected by it, the legal framework, partner organisations and related news and publications.
It highlights just how much unpacking the simple word 'policy' seems to require.
Occasionally the government talks in a language that implies there are policies and meta-policies.
The original motivation behind the development of departmental business plans was not so much for Whitehall to achieve something itself, but for it to put in place the frameworks, systems and incentives for others to achieve it.
In which case the 'policies' may become more diffuse, being developed and implemented by a variety of local providers and getting blurred with the day-to-day decisions and delivery, operations and implementation.
Anyway, this post aims to suggest a couple of ways in which the presentation of policy information online could be used to significantly enhance political accountability, in line with my personal definition of eDemocracy.
There are two classes of information, open data and freedom of information releases, which might implicitly be covered by the phrases "statements about actions" or "related publications" but which would benefit from being explicitly mentioned given their potential importance.
They might not be relevant in every scenario, but as well as the statements and speeches about what the government says it is doing, policy pages should also include the datasets which might provide some kind of evidence about what it is actually achieving.
Given that some of the most significant policies (those in the departmental business plans at least) have targets or intended outcomes associated with them, and deadlines, it should be possible to pull out the data from the information strategies which is being used as an indicator for delivery success.
Progress on each of the business plan objectives is already being tracked in monthly updates, but more could be made of this information than is currently the case.
Some data visualisations of this information might also be a massive step forward for visibility and accountability, certainly on the headline commitments if not on every last detailed policy.
Further down the road, gov.uk could also go further on some of the other open data that's out there and relate spending figures to policies so everyone can see how much a policy costs.
Another significant step would be to publicly assign the policy to people or bodies in the departmental organograms which are available now, so it is also clear who is responsible for it.
Adding in this kind of information (gov.uk might be planning some of this already for all I know) – and making it available for re-use and publication anywhere else – could significantly transform the quality of information available to citizens about what their government is both trying to do and actually delivering.