Policy for the future


  • Leadership

How can we think about policymaking in new ways more likely to achieve impact for citizens? The RSA has been collaborating with the Centre for Public Impact (CPI) to consider what a novel approach might look like.

Getting policy right is incredibly difficult, and as a result it often fails even with the best intentions. However amidst parliamentary condemnation and public outcry we rarely pause to consider why policy fails so regularly, and whether there are structural flaws in the methods by which policy is designed that results too often in disappointing outcomes.

Part of the problem could be that policymakers are often too focused on the policy. Sounds absurd I know, but as brilliantly described in Ivor Crewe and Anthony King’s The Blunders of Our Government, policymakers can be so committed to designing beautiful, watertight policy that the grit of effective implementation plans and hard work of generating popular support can be side-lined or passed off to a different group of civil servants to (hopefully) deal with.

The recent findings of CPI on the ingredients of successful, impactful policy show that this old-school model of policymaking won’t do. CPI’s Public Impact Fundamentals illustrate that effective policies tend to possess three key features in equal measure: sound policy, effective action plans and public legitimacy.

The starting point for our research and two seminars with CPI was, therefore, that policymakers need to be helped and incentivized to think about these features simultaneously and in concert, as opposed to solely policy design with the action and legitimacy considered as separate stages in a policy’s lifecycle.

But how to equip policymakers to think and operate in this way? At the RSA we’ve been developing a framework entitled ‘think like a system, act like an entrepreneur’ to address this challenge.

Before diving into a policy area, policymakers should first develop a broader understanding of the context in which a problem sits. This means mapping key stakeholders, identifying those with influence to implement new initiatives, appreciating competing interests and power dynamics at play and considering ways to effectively gauge public sentiment. This process could lead to a range of conclusions: perhaps there are other problems that need to be addressed first, or that scope for action is limited to distinct aspects of the wider problem.

Insights like these can then aide policymakers to act entrepreneurially – spotting the opportunities with the highest chance of producing lasting impact. As we’re fond of saying at the RSA, ‘push what moves’, with the understanding that silver bullet solutions to problems are exceedingly rare and the higher probability of change likely lies in a series of smaller interventions carried out over a period of time.

If this all sounds somewhat fanciful, it’s worth saying that this thinking has begun to make inroads in Whitehall. Policy Lab has pioneered design thinking approaches to policy, seeking to bring together a diverse range of stakeholders to collaboratively generate possible solutions to a challenge. Perhaps the biggest benefit of this approach is its move away from a model of the omniscient policymaker, towards a recognition that good policy is more likely to arrive through creative co-design incorporating a diverse range of perspectives.

We’re certainly not pretending to have all the answers. Rather, we hope to provide fresh momentum to an important conversation about the kind of policymaking structures suitable for the complex, volatile world in which we live. This report is just the start of that discussion, so please do get in touch with thoughts, suggestions and critiques at [email protected]


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