Under-promise, over-deliver


Is there a connecting theme to these observations and incidents?

* Last week the Coalition announced its intentions radically to reform the welfare system, with a particular focus on improving incentives to work. Maybe I missed it, but in the announcement and subsequent commentary I didn’t see any mention of what I have always seen as the most iron rule in public policy. Welfare reform tends to have three primary goals; to get resources to those most in need, to improve incentives to work and save, and to minimise the overall cost to the nation. The iron rule is simply that system reform can achieve two out of three of these objectives but – because of the inherent tensions between them - it can never achieve three out of three.   

* The other day I found myself sitting on the tube next to an old friend who used to run a major Government programme. We chatted about the mixed success of the programme and about my friend’s scepticism about various claims being made by think tanks and politicians for other interventions. Causes and effects are complex and major programmes impact differentially due to local variations in context and the quality of service delivery. ‘One of the problems with my programme’ the friend said ‘was that it was simply expected to deliver too many different outcomes…..people are always looking for a silver bullet but the longer you work in social policy the more suspicious you get of such claims’.

* This morning The Times reports the Centre for Social Justice (the think tank set up by Iain Duncan Smith) has written to the Treasury complaining of a lack of strategy and consistency in the cuts now being implemented across Whitehall. One particular complaint was that just as the DWP was emphasising the need to improve work incentives another part of the Coalition was removing entitlement to free school meals from the working poor.   

* With the number of schools wanting to be Academies and the number of groups applying to run free schools being several orders of magnitude smaller that the Coalition had claimed they would be, it seems the Education Department is developing a slightly more modest and incremental account of system change 

If there is a theme here it is that social policy – particularly at the national level – is complex. Programmes can take years to have an impact and even then the evidence will be mixed and contested. It is very difficult to co-ordinate actions across Government yet policies in one area often confound or undermine policies coming from somewhere else.

 There are various ways of responding. One is to argue that public policy interventions are always a poor way of spending money and should be minimised. Another is to argue for radical decentralisation so that the chain between policy and outcomes is much shorter and co-ordination easier. A third – which I mentioned in a post a couple of weeks ago – might be to explore the use of very different models of interventions, for example using social networks to try to generate tipping points in norms and habits.

But another lesson is surely that policy makers (and those who seek to influence them) should try to be realistic about what can be achieved. In particular it should be emphasised that most programmes will make only marginal impacts unless they manage to engage the public itself in a shared project.

The Coalition has a healthy scepticism about the capacity of central Government to intervene usefully in front-line services. But in other areas – for example, welfare reform - it is in danger of forgetting the painful imperative learnt too late by New Labour; rather than the reverse, always try to under-promise and over-deliver.

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