Can policy save politics? - RSA

Can policy save politics?


  • Public services
  • Social innovation
  • Social mobility

Although often elided the respective domains of ‘policy’ and ‘politics’ are animated by different imperatives and cultures. The former aims for solutions, prizing objectivity and technical know-how: the latter aims for power and values strategic guile. Different kinds of people (or people at different stages of their lives) tend to be attracted to policy and politics and members of each tribe tend to view the other with an enervating mixture of contempt, suspicion and envy.

The worlds of policy and politics have travelled along in parallel lines influencing each other, each being influenced by the wider social, economic and technological changes and with ideas and people jumping from one track to the other. But now a historic divergence may be occurring.

The policy world is buzzing with new methodologies. Changing public attitudes, social media and big data are among the drivers. Key ideas include ‘open policy making’ (the subject of a major Cabinet Office event which I am chairing next week), policy making as design and the greater use of experimental methods such as randomised control trials and prototyping.

Driving the search for innovation is a loss of faith in the traditional system of policy undertaken in secret (with tokenistic and shallow forms of public consultation), compromising objectivity to short-termism and political or bureaucratic self-interest and culminating in huge, often departmentally bounded, make or break projects and reforms. The new generation of policy wonks aim to be more open not just about the solutions being proposed but also about the problems being faced, to share the tools available to solve those problems (particularly data) and to be willing to develop, design and test solutions in and with the public.

As the policy world boldly seeks to go where no policy maker has gone before, mainstream politics drifts deeper into the doldrums of public disdain. Statistics on public trust of politicians, membership of political parties and electoral turnout all tell the same story. The rise of nationalism in Europe, the advance of UKIP and the fascination with the ramblings of Russell Brand are all further symptoms of disillusionment with the political establishment. Any attempt by politicians to claim to be pursuing the national interest is accompanied by a media narrative of infighting, horse-trading and opportunism. As my colleague Adam Lent said in a recent blog post

Politics is hated because it is a hateful profession. That doesn’t make it unusual – most professions are characterised by petty politicking, tedious tribalism, gossip and self-interest. The difference with politics is that, unlike other professions, all those frailties get constantly and very publicly dressed up, by politicians themselves, as humble public service. Such in your face hypocrisy is rarely good for anyone’s credibility 

What happens when the aspiration for better policy making is sabotaged by political habit? A former Number Ten colleague who had helped develop and popularise the phrase ‘joined up Government’ told me the following story: Soon after the General Election in 1997 he was asked to speak to a regular gathering of senior civil servants. They were terribly enthusiastic, expressing whole hearted commitment to making Government more collaborative and seamless. By the following year doubt was starting to set in; how could civil servants join up when cabinet members didn’t, how could co-ordination improve when ministers made populist announcements in response to newspaper headlines. “By year three’, he said, “simply to utter the phrase ‘joined up government’ was to invite riducule’.

The criteria of cutting edge policy development - openness, objectivity, collaboration and experimentation – are being championed by various parts of the Cabinet Office (not itself always the most functional department), meanwhile the way policy making proceeds in, say, DWP, MoJ or the Department for Education not only often fails these tests but appears to do so proudly. Such a contrast is a recipe for the kind of cynicism which quickly followed in the wake of New Labour’s promise to modernise Government.

In the face of change and public disenchantment there have been attempts to reform politics. From the Conservatives open primaries to select candidates and its social action Programme through which parliamentary candidates developed local community projects. From Labour the attempt by former General Secretary Peter Watt to allow members to engage with each other more freely on-line, or various flirtations with community organising as a new form of local activism. But the most notable aspect of all these initiatives is how they have remained marginal or been co-opted to narrower electoral purposes.

And if reforming the way Parties work seems tough it is as nothing to changing the culture of political decision making among senior politicians in Whitehall or the Opposition. The ridiculous number of departmental ministers, the very idea of Government policy being overseen by a committee of nearly thirty people, the almost non-existent day to day collaboration between people with different departmental portfolios, the obsession with Party activists and national political journalists (even they are themselves increasingly isolated from the public) are symbols of a creaking system which would not be tolerated in a medium sized jam factory but is apparently acceptable as the way we run our country.

Politics has to change. The question is whether the system can change itself or we will have to endure a dangerous paroxysm of populist revolt. New forms of policy making may initially make business-as-usual politics look even more tawdry, but if they deliver on even some of their promise it might it help shame and inspire the political class to begin the long process of imagining ways of working which both are, and are seen to be, in the public interest.

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