Tackling long-term challenges in government

The new Prime Minister Theresa May has put a number of long-term policy goals at the centre of her premiership, pledging to champion social mobility and implement a modern industrial strategy. But if she is to make progress on these and other testing policy endeavours, she will need to break with the disappointing record of her predecessors in staying focused on delivering long-term change.

This will have to be done at a time of great challenges. Brexit has already incurred delays in other parts of the Government’s business. There is also an extremely challenging fiscal environment that clearly presents difficulties for the Prime Minister’s new agenda on social mobility, particularly if progress in this area requires upfront investment to unlock distant benefits.

And even without these challenges, staying focused on long-term policy goals has been a weakness of government, which has often preferred reinvention to staying the course.

It does not have to be this way. There are a range of things that government can do to make it more likely that a policy will endure and achieve what it set out to achieve. We looked at four case studies where this has happened, to understand how this can become the norm:

  • UK climate change policy, 2006 onwards. The Climate Change Act 2008 established a framework of targets and institutions that has subsequently delivered a 20% reduction in UK carbon emissions.
  • UK international development policy, 1997 onwards. The establishment of the Department for International Development (DfID) created a new, enduring approach to development spending that was divorced from foreign policy concerns.
  • Anti-poverty strategy in Ireland, 1997 to 2007. Successive Irish governments contributed to a strategy that halved the number of people living in poverty.
  • Rough sleepers policy in England, 1990 onwards. A gradually escalating policy response under the Major Government culminated, in 1999, with the creation of the Rough Sleepers Unit, which reduced the number of people sleeping on the streets by two-thirds.

Some of the topics that are explored in the case studies are already coming around again. The Government’s attitude to the relationship between aid spending and national interest appears to be back on the table. The decision of the Government to pass a fifth carbon budget even after the turmoil of Brexit underlines the fact that this remains a live issue. The lessons of the case studies should be borne in mind during future policy-setting.

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