Policy reinvention leads to huge waste and little progress

A new report lays bare the staggering amount of change in key government policies over the last five decades.

Published today by the Institute for Government, All Change examines three policy areas which have experienced near-constant upheaval: further education, regional governance and industrial policy. For example, the last 30 years have seen 28 major pieces of legislation relating to further education led by 48 secretaries of state. And there have been three industrial strategies in the last decade.

The cost of all this reinvention – both human and economic – is high. In further education, thousands of students and employers are faced with a confusing and ever-changing set of qualifications, with no certainty that those same qualifications will exist a few years down the line.

Creating a new department – often at short notice and poorly planned – costs £15m in the first year alone. Taking into account the temporary disruption to business, as people grapple with the logistics of creating a new department, the longer-term costs are substantially higher.

With contributions from former Adviser to David Cameron, Rachel Wolf, and Times columnist and former Blair speechwriter Philip Collins, the paper argues that reinvention leads to huge waste and little progress.

Emma Norris, IfG Programme Director, said:

“The sheer scale of change to these key government policy areas is astounding – not just because of the costs incurred, but also the effect on people’s lives. Government can and must safeguard against wasting more time, money and resources on endless changes that result in little progress.

“This churn is not simply a result of changes in government. It highlights persistent weaknesses in our system of government: the tendency to change and to recreate rather than commit to stable, well-evidenced policy.”

The Institute recommends:

  • Departments use tools (such as digital records) to better capture what they already know, and aren’t forced to start from scratch on every new policy idea.
  • Clear lines of accountability, making the senior civil servant in charge of policy making in each department responsible for maintaining institutional memory.
  • Making it standard practice to gather evidence including of previous reforms as part of the development of new policy proposals.
  • Greater scrutiny by select committees, requiring the government to include a statement on the evidence behind policy decisions as a routine part of enquires.
  • A greater role for the Treasury in assessing the costs of organisational change.

For more information, please contact Nicole Valentinuzzi on 07850313791.


Notes to editors

  1. The report can be found on our website or available upon request.
  2. The Institute for Government (IfG) is an independent think tank working to make government more effective.


Associated documents: