Structured for success? Emerging trends in department policy functions

7 October 2013

In 2011, our report Making Policy Better observed a state of flux in how Whitehall departments structured their policy functions. This summer we revisited these issues through roundtables with nine departments to take stock of what had happened since then. The results are summarised in our new paper, Organising Policy Making.

Better aligned?

The standalone strategy units that existed in departments in 2010 have, in a number of departments, been merged with the private offices. The aim has been to achieve better alignment of policy making resources in departments with ministerial priorities. These units have also taken on progress chasing and quality assurance. This approach is potentially another route to achieving some of the goals set out in the proposals for Extended Ministerial Offices.

More flexible?

In 2010 some departments had begun to use small, flexible pools of staff, deployed reactively to high priority policy work. In most cases this was in addition to traditional standing policy teams.

Now there is wide variation between departments, from those who have only recently dipped their toes into flexible pools (often keeping it one as a small, central ‘crack team’), to those who have dived right in, rolling flexible resourcing out across a whole department. In practice, even those with ambitions of moving towards a norm of flexible project working recognise that this is best pursued within directorates to give some coherence to staff moves – what one participant at our roundtables called flexible ‘puddles’ around the ‘rocks’ at director level.

However, not all departments are going in the same direction. One of the early adopters of a single policy pool at the further end of the flexibility spectrum has moved back to a model with two directors general which has made flexibility difficult.

More planned?

In part as a consequence of these changes, there is now far more discussion and consideration of planning policy work across departments, and in more cases ministers are feeding into that directly. But there is also wide variation in how and how often, that planning process works in departments.

Drivers of change

It is hardly surprising that the dramatic changes to Whitehall budgets and headcount documented in our Whitehall Monitor and Transforming Whitehall reports have been a big driver of change – departments increasingly cannot afford to lock resources into standing teams or allocate time to low priority activity.

But it also became clear that ministers themselves were a second very important driver and initiated some of the biggest reorganisations – in some cases because they came to departments with a remit to shake them up and in others because they had swapped notes with Cabinet colleagues and wanted to follow their model. In particular this had driven the spread of the unified strategy-private office model.

Future risks

The people we spoke to pointed out some risks. Some we identified in 2010: loss of expertise, relationships and the need for good knowledge management. But they were also concerned about the loss of capacity to do forward thinking on issues not at the top of the current minister’s in-tray. They felt that it left them unprepared, even for a change in minister.

Making policy better?

There has been much more change in the organisation of policy making than we would have anticipated in 2011. Some changes have been positive, and in line with our recommendations, such as better planning and better alignment with ministers. Some gaps still remain, for example on knowledge management, now to be reviewed as part of the new 12 point plan to professionalise policy making.

But as yet there has been no attempt to work through which of these structures produces more effective policy making. So there has been a lot of experimentation, in some cases structures have been changed twice since we last looked at them with no chance to bed down. But in the end we are little the wiser on what works – and what doesn’t.

The norms of good policy making need to be applied to the way we organise policy functions.

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One Response

  1. Richard Allen on 7 October 2013 at 11:49 am

    I probably haven’t read all the relevant literature, but what is “effective policy making”? How do you assess it, measure it? Whitehall is a master at running processes – look at PPM – but outcomes remain variable. I’d be interested to know what success measures are established for policy making. Ticking process boxes and getting an acceptable policy past Ministers or meeting the requirements they set out are one set of things – but whether the policy can be delivered, over what timescale and how are another. And how do you know you’ve achieved the policy?
    I also agree that the current model risks repeating past problems – very bright people making policy without sufficient expertise & knowledge of the subject. And the Whitehall syndrome of reorganise and reform every year or two adds to these risks. What also bothers me is that too many policies are seen by Ministers as being achieved when they are announced and when the initial results don’t meet expectations, they – often under the cosh by the media – demand changes. So many policies which need years to achieve their goals get tinkered with or even abandoned in the interest of short term politics.

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