Making sure political promises last

Inequality, climate change, poverty – these are issues that every government tries to tackle. They are deep-rooted problems that require attention longer than election cycles and political careers. But many policies seem to exist on a merry-go-round of investment and decline: investment when a crisis lands it on the front page, decline when it slips from public view.

A new paper from the Institute for Government and the Joseph Roundtree Foundation says it doesn’t have to be this way. ‘Making policy stick’ argues that Theresa May must act now if she wants to address inequality and make good on her promise of creating a “country that works for everyone”.

By examining policy areas where governments have managed to make a difference in the past, the report authors offer advice to the Prime Minister thinking about the future:

  1. Choose specific targets – you can’t solve everything.
    The Irish Government in 1997 made strides in poverty reduction only once it decided to target the ‘consistently poor’.
  2. Create a special unit or appoint a strong leader.
    The Rough Sleepers Unit, which saw remarkable success in 1999, was led by Louise Casey and she reported straight into Tony Blair.
  3. Ensure your work outlives your own political career.
    The Office of Climate Change, created by David Miliband, seamlessly merged into the Department of Energy and Climate Change, ensuring its longevity.
  4. Force your successors to re-engage with the issue.
    Gordon Brown put into law the requirement for Government publish new carbon budgets every five years.
  5. Get support from outside government.
    Involving charities in the founding of DfID in 1997 created a powerful lobby that continues to hold ministers account. In establishing the rough sleepers count in 1996, the Major government worked closely with voluntary groups to agree a methodology so that resources could flow to the areas where they were needed.

The task of getting government focused on the long term is made more difficult by the lack of dedicated capacity for strategic planning in the centre of government, including the continued absence of a Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit (it was abolished in 2010). 

Emma Norris, Programme Director and report author, said:

“Theresa May pledged to fight the ‘burning injustice’ of social inequality. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron…they all made similar promises in their time. So if she wants to be the first PM to make real progress on tackling social inequality, she needs to get going.

“This is no easy task, with Brexit casting a long shadow. But this is about more than her legacy – this is about dealing with systemic issues in this country. And this how she can really make policies that work for everyone.”


Notes to editors

  1. The full paper is available at
  2. The Institute for Government is an independent think tank that works to make government more effective.
  3. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) is an independent organisation working to inspire social change through research, policy and practice. For more information visit JRF is on Twitter. Keep up to date with news and comments @jrf_uk.
  4. For more information, please contact / 07850313791