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.