Implementation, implementation, implementation
Last week I participated in a panel at a Green Alliance event on the Green Deal. Someone from Chiswick complained that he had asked some local builders for quotes to renovate his newly acquired house – they had all offered to install solar panels – but none had offered him ‘Green Deal’ improvements.
That was fine responded Climate Change Minister, Greg Barker. The Green Deal didn’t launch until the autumn – and was a 20 year programme – so it would grow and change over time. So it was wrong to expect builders to know about it now. The Green Deal is an immensely complex proposition as shown by the delivery map the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) below. It requires multiple different actors to make decisions to happen.
But the bad news for DECC is that the prime minister is already on their case – as the Telegraph stated earlier in the week: “He cited several programmes where he is pushing for better or faster progress. He said: “Is the Green Deal delivering on time? Are our welfare reforms working? Is the free schools programme going fast enough? Are the changes to the immigration system coming in? ‘That is how I spend my time, driving change from the centre, at the same time as recognising the key to good government is good ministers who have clear instructions about what needs to be done.’”
This list betrays some of the other problems with Prime Ministerial impatience. Welfare reform is a massive task. The Welfare Reform Act became law in March 2012. The big changes to disability benefits and to universal credit only start implementation next year. The changes being implemented now are the housing benefit cap and some tightening up of eligibility criteria. In fact, the real test of universal credit, as the government itself acknowledges, is whether it changes the culture around work and worklessness in the long-term.
None of this is to say that the Prime Minister is wrong to focus on implementation. Indeed after two years of legislative heavy lifting, implementation needs to be the focus of the second half of a Parliament. But he already has created the mechanisms that are supposed to chase progress – business plans, monitored by the Implementation Unit, and more accountable departmental boards. And his new head of the Civil Service should be holding permanent secretaries to account for delivery (a word that has now been revived). If none of these are enough, the next step may be a recreation of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit – dispensed with in the early days of this government. After all, this was exactly where Tony Blair was after his first two years.
But the key thing about successful implementation is ruthless focus on detail. And one of those details is to understand the lag between legislating or developing a scheme within Whitehall and when those who implement start to get going. Then the task is to ensure that there are effective feedback loops to understand whether the policy is achieving the expected results – or whether there needs to be intervention to correct the course and set it back on track.
Both the Green Deal and welfare reform are changes to already complex systems – where the government will, as we have argued previously, need to act not as a director of policy but as a “system steward”. They need to be overseen by people who are steeped in that complexity. It is far from clear that they are the sort of policies that can be driven effectively from No.10.