From the ridiculous to the sublime - the extremes of policy making - RSA

From the ridiculous to the sublime - the extremes of policy making


Those of us who reside in policy wonk land generally look out on a world of ambiguity. Because society is complex and change often takes a long time, the evidence on whether a policy has worked or failed is usually ambiguous. This doesn't make for great headlines or memorable examples; indeed, recently I heard someone having to stretch all the way back to the Dangerous Dogs Act or the Millennium Dome to find unambiguous examples of failure. But today we have a new policy disaster that will just keep on giving

Over the next twenty years in England, Wales and internationally the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners will be a favourite case study, bringing a moment of clarity and humour to otherwise opaque presentations on the do's and dont's of policy making.

I am not merely referring to the predictably miserable turnout; a PR disaster both because of the overall turnout below fifteen percent and all the juicy details such as the polling station where no-one voted, the totally empty ballot boxes and the fact that not a single PCC will have received first preferences from more than one in ten local people. There is also the calibre issue. There will be some good PCCs no doubt, but there are many others who are Party time servers or sound bite populists not successful enough to have become or remained MPs.

The quality of many of those elected, the ambiguity of their role, and the way that any Chief Constable with any nous will effectively marginalise or capture them, means the low standing achieved for PCCs by today's election is very likely to be maintained. This will contribute to the policy receiving prominence again in a couple of years.

As Labour tries to square the circle of needing an offer to make at the next general election with the fact that there is no money, its strategists will desperately search for areas of unpopular Government spending. For this will enable the opposition to argue - on however flimsy the grounds - that they can fund new promises from their own cuts.

Remember Labour's pledge card in 1997? Its commitments were made on exactly this basis, for example 'we will reduce class sizes by abolishing the Assisted Places Scheme' or 'we will reduce hospital waiting times by cutting NHS bureaucracy'. In economic and policy terms it's pretty tenuous, but as a form of communication very powerful. So, another prediction made with great confidence is that at the next election Labour will be promising more bobbies on the beat funded by abolishing.....well, you know.

In case readers think I luxuriate only in disaster, I offer you a contrast between this debacle and one of the most utterly brilliant bits of policy making and leadership I have ever come across; the fat-busting Republican Mayor of Oklahoma.

Spending no money, showing personal humility, humour and courage, cleverly developing an idea step by step to the point at which it becomes truly transformative, making change about people first and Government second, it is an utterly brilliant example.

Once again, flat footed, inflexible national Government gets it wrong while responsive, creative city leadership makes real stuff happen. No wonder Benjamin Barber's new book is to be called 'If Mayors Ruled the World'.


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