Policy failure - RSA

Blog: Why is Government relentlessly wrong?

Blog 2 Comments

  • Communities
  • Drug & alcohol recovery
  • Health & wellbeing
  • Housing
  • Institutional reform
  • Prisons
  • Public services

This morning marks another stop on the ‘Governments pretending to solve the housing crisis’ route. A series of minor regulatory changes to brownfield land will make little difference other than at the edges. They will largely benefit the housing asset endowed and do little for the rest.

A while back I posted a blog ‘Why is housing policy such a mess?” This morning it still is and until there is serious engagement with the grotesquely out of date Planning Act 1948 then a mess it shall remain.

In some vain attempt to let off steam I posted a broadside on Twitter this morning asking whether there are any other areas in which Government is so relentlessly wrong? It got quite a response. The following came up:

-          Transport

-          Drugs policy

-          Prisons

-          Education

-          Vocational Training

-          Welfare (though that was mine).

There were a few other areas such as ‘economics’ and ‘defence’ that I’m not including. In all the other areas, there is strong case that all or at least significant parts of our national policy has been highly flawed and, yes, wrong. Just take transport, how on earth have we ended up in a situation where we have delayed expanding airport capacity that is needed for twenty years with probably at least another decade of delay to come? How is it that train services in the north and the east are so outdated and fail to meet economic needs with a further delay in the offing?

It goes on and on. The real question is why. Let me advance a working theory. There is a basic step political leaders fail to take when facing any challenge – it is one of definition. All these significant areas of Government policy failure have one of two essential features:

  1. They are challenges of a technical nature (eg building a runway) that is turned into a problem of a political (complex) nature. So leaders duck hard choices or they let prevailing path dependencies and collective action problems persist largely through fear and cowardice (eg setting up a £20million Airports Commission to give an answer that was known already).
  2. They are problems of a political nature (ie require complex interactions) that are met with technical solutions that largely fail. Often the technical solutions, eg targets for GCSE A-C grades, work for a time but then start to fail or are gamed and so new technical solutions (eg the Ebacc) are devised which will equally fail. Because of a short term focus successive Governments fail to innovate system level responses that have a better chance of achieving policy goals in a complex human system.   

Some of the areas above are a mixture of the two. Take prisons, we have both failed to build the right sort of prison and failed through the criminal justice system to significantly divert those with convictions.

In the case of vocational education we have failed to invest properly in world-class further education facilities and workforce but at the same time there have been literally thousands of attempted fixes to ensure the system meets future economic needs. Not surprisingly technical fixes have failed in a complex skills and economic eco-system (though the proposed Apprenticeship Levy has some potential).

We have constructed a monstrously complex welfare system that locks people in a spin-dryer of low pay and a brutal welfare state. Again, thousands of technical fixes from sanctions to the work programme have failed. There can’t be more than five people in the land who truly understand the system.

Drugs policy is as fragmented and orphaned as criminal rehabilitation policy. You could add mental health services to the mix.

So there is a simple test that could be applied to any major area of policy: to what extent is this technical and to what extent is this a complex, political issue?

And if you are applying political solutions to technical problems and vice versa then you will fail. Maybe this simple test might mean less poverty, more economic growth, more skills, a greater level of rehabilitation and drugs recovery, more houses including affordable houses, a greater level of well-being and, most crucially, less human misery.

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  • Governments are relentlessly wrong because they have no reliable falsification mechanism, such as profit/loss to guide their efforts. In addition, those creating/enacting policy (politicians/bureaucrats) have little or no risk, and those who must fund policy (taxpayers) have no ability to opt out of payment. Without any consequential feedback from the supposed customers and investors, government is left without a guide.

  • I think this is a really arresting and astute observation. There are systemic distortions in the process of developing policy responses from real practical problems, and that's even before such issues and potential ideas then enter the political arena and get tested (ie thrown out, mangled or miscommunicated)  by reference to party values, media messaging, and 'popular appeal'.

    I would throw a third field/dimension into the mix, however - and that's money. I think we have often seen many issues that are essentially one of the following:

    a) a straightforward finance/investment problem misrepresented and turned into a 'political & technical' problem (eg child poverty is not really about money at all, but about the complex interaction and tackling of parental fecklessness / addiction / school performance) and/or

    b) a political & technical problem responded to with a 'financial' solution - eg how do we get more effective at  reducing, preventing and treating addiction? Well if we use our money to force change, and pay everyone involved only by the achievement of results, cleverness with money will solve this complex social political and technical problem.

    Two recent PbR pilot evaluations in particular have produced the startling effect that contrary to the hypothesis that rewarding for success must lead to great success....in both Rikers Island SIB and the addiction PbR pilots in Britain, the same tried and tested practice programmes being delivered quite effectively without PbR actually became LESS effective under PbR finance. It's an important watershed in challenging some of these flawed new policy solutions to such entrenched political and technical problems.


    And here: