New Year’s resolution: Make policy better

3 January 2012

Our report on the 'S' factors looks at how some policies that actually work were made. The coalition government and the new leadership of the civil service might find it useful new year reading.

An optimistic start for the New Year – policies can work and governments can make a difference. Not a headline you would expect to see – but the subject of our new report.

Success means that policies survive changes of government, become part of the status quo and the starting point for new policy. Over the past fifty years, government policy has helped reshape attitudes to smoking – such that in 2007 a ban on smoking in public places could be imposed with widespread popular support. We have seen a decisive shift in the way Scotland and Wales are governed through successful devolution – so successful in fact that the impetus is now for more devolution rather than less. The redrawing of the boundaries of the state under Mrs Thatcher made privatisation into a word and a successful UK export: now the idea that the telephone system would be run by the state and you would have to be on a waiting list for a phone – as opposed to a queue in a mobile phone shop – is unthinkable. There is now broad acceptance from both “sides” of industry that a minimum wage not only protects workers but also protects good employers from their less scrupulous competitors. More recently, the Pensions Commission paved the way for a rethink on how we get people to save for retirement, and the Climate Change Act put the UK in the lead in binding itself to future action.

Over the last year we have been bringing together the people who were involved in these successes to hear their version of those individual successes. Our report draws out seven themes which recurred in those sessions – and which illustrate perfectly Tony Blair’s maxim that the best long-term policy is the best long-term politics.

Those common themes are about taking time – and building in the capacity for policy to adjust; being willing to understand the past and learn from failure; they highlight the rigorous use of evidence – and a willingness to extend policy making beyond Whitehall’s usual preferred monopoly. But there are heroes too in these policy making stories – Ministers showing leadership, parliament using its power effectively to change policy, outsiders brought in to add expertise and help navigate through tricky cross-currents of internal and external opinion. But it also illustrates the power of effective working relationships between Ministers and civil servants – the sort that many reported were too frequently missing in our report Policy Making in the Real World. The coalition has shown a willingness to rethink and open up policy – but too often only after its first attempt has failed.

There is one particularly interesting point for the coalition. We asked participants in our policy reunions to analyse the starting points for these “successful” policies. The one thing they all had in common was a lack of internal party agreement on the way forward. It is possible to hypothesise that this was a reason why ministers had to pay more attention to good policy process. Formal coalitions should have an advantage here. Perhaps they need to make a New Year’s resolution to use it.

Share this post:

Comments (4)

  1. Martin Harper on 10 January 2012 at 10:44 am

    Fascinating stuff, Jill. I think that your seven commandments are sound. I do wonder, however, whether there is a specific challenge for new administrations. Keen to hit the ground running, new ministers want to put into place the agenda that they have carefully crafted after (sometimes) years in opposition. They do not necessarily give themselves time to consider how their policies will be received by the public.

    On the environmental agenda, there are examples from the new administration of the good, the bad and the ugly. I would suggest that the Government gave itself time to engage and consult with key stakeholders on both the National Ecosystem Assessment and Natural Environment White Papers (two initiatives I would argue are successes although implementation is still to come). The forestry debacle was of course a failure of empathy (people rather like woods) and communication (there is quite a lot that can be done to improve the public value of our forested land) while the planning proposals are a mash up of good intent (to simplify the system) and bad policy design (years of environmental protection potentially undermied).

    I hope all policy makers read your report and take note.

  2. Jill Rutter on 10 January 2012 at 6:12 pm

    Thanks Martin. I agree that transition is a particularly stressful time for policy making and for ministerial-civil servant relationships. Interesting that on the NE WP the govt was happy to build on the work of Hilary Benn eg in commissioning the ecosystem assessment. Tony Blair here said that new govts should do this more.

    some of the transitions issues are dealt with in Peter Riddell and Cath Haddon’s Lessons Learned report. But maybe we need a mandatory cooling off period before new policies can be announced

  3. Professor Matthew Flinders on 11 January 2012 at 3:45 pm

    Life as a senior politician is actually far-tougher than many observers realise. Politics at the sharp-end is about squeezing collective decisions out of multiple and competing demands and as a
    result the role of a politician is – if we are honest – to devise
    solutions that are the least unsatisfactory to the most people. This is not, as Bernard Crick argued almost exactly fifty years ago in his brilliant ‘In Defence of politics’, the failure of politics but is actually the great value and beauty of democratic politics. It is in exactly this context that the Institue for Government’s report identifies a set of common factors that are to be found lying below the surface of most government policies that are generally regarded as great successes. Possibly the clearest insight that can be gleaned from this research, however, is that good policy-making demands time, flexibility and (above all) clear and stable political leadership.

  4. Alex Cruttwell on 20 March 2012 at 1:55 pm

    Following on from the “Good policy, bad politics” event on 13 March, I was struck by a couple of observations:

    The thrust of the evidence based policy making line of reasoning seemed very much to be that there was some platonic correct policy decision to be made, and if only the bureaucratic machine had more time and money then it would be discovered. We should acknowledge that evidence and facts are always more slippery than we hope – especially in the social sciences;

    There was a lot of discussion about how the evidence assessors could create a community and ways of working that would enable them to develop and maintain a sense of profession. There might be parallels with the secret intelligence analysts, especially looking at how they responded to the Butler report on the use of intelligence in the run up to the start of the Iraq War in 2003

Blog: Permalink