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Why policy fails - and how it might succeed

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  • Leadership

It is my annual lecture tonight at 6.00. You can watch it below. Or hear my account of it this morning on the Today programme (from 02:56:30).  Or you can read this short summary of the core argument…... 

Read the full transcript of Matthew's speech - Annual RSA Chief Executive Lecture 2016 (via Medium)

The RSA is a strong supporter of Universal Basic Income - the proposal that every citizen receive an unconditional living allowance from the state. UBI provides security for the growing army of part time workers and improves work incentives for low paid people. Among its other virtues, by enabling Government employment services to move from enforcement to helping people advance in their careers, it makes the state less intrusive in people's lives.

So if Theresa May was to ring me at the RSA tomorrow to say she had read our work on an affordable way to introduce UBI and had decided to announce it as Government policy in the Autumn Statement, surely I would be delighted? In fact, with respect and some regret, I would advise the Prime Minister to think again. Why?

Too often, ministers and civil servants - and all of us who urge them to act - view the levers of central Government as the best way to change society.  But new laws and regulations tend to be cumbersome and blunt and the record of failure is long and depressing. It’s not just the big disasters like the poll tax, Child Support Agency, rail privatisation and now Universal Credit, after forty years of almost continuous reform of public services, social inequality, low productivity and economic marginalisation remain intractable. Traditional policy struggles in an ever-more complex and fast-changing world, comprised of citizens who are unwilling to believe or do what they are told.

Major policy shifts can only succeed if they go with the grain of public opinion. To take two very different examples, the smoking ban and Scottish devolution were smoothly implemented, and are now overwhelmingly supported, because the ground work before legislation had been done, respectively by public health campaigns and the Scottish Constitutional Convention.

The invisible death of the Child Trust Fund (a policy that I worked on with my respondent this evening, former ippr Director and Number Ten policy chief, Professor Nick Pearce) demonstrates what happens when public buy-in is an afterthought. I was proud in 2005 to be involved when the Government created the Fund to address poverty and growing asset inequality by giving each child a cash nest egg at birth which would mature when they reached 18. But though the case for it remains strong, public awareness and support was not. When the Coalition scrapped the policy in 2010, there was hardly a murmur of dissent.

Support in the UK for basic income remains weaker than other countries.  Whilst there are issues to resolve around its interaction with existing benefits, the biggest political hurdles are matters of principle. After decades of rhetoric about welfare 'scroungers', a benefit providing everyone with a very modest living feels not only counter cultural but unjust to many people. There is also a perception - ill-advisedly reinforced by some UBI advocates - that the policy is a path to a golden future in which robots have taken all the jobs and we can all lead a life of leisure. UBI is about making work better, not abolishing it.

From employers to community groups, UBI supporters must explain the opportunities it provides for new approaches which offer people more choices and greater fulfilment. As with other major social shifts like the rejection of discrimination based on gender, ethnicity or sexuality, its success will depend on how citizens and civil society respond.

Universal Basic Income can shape economic and technological change in a way that gives many more people more control over their lives, but only if everyone understands its potential.

All together now:

"What do we want?" 

"UBI !" 

"When do we want it?"

"Only when we are truly ready!"


Read the full transcript of Matthew's speech - Annual RSA Chief Executive Lecture 2016 (via Medium)

Watch Matthew's annual lecture - Why policy fails - and how it might succeed

Follow the debate on Twitter @RSAEvents #RSApolicy

Basic Income - find out more about our work on Basic Income

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  • I agree with the general thrust of Matthew Taylor's lecture and also on the need for UBI.  I commented on the earlier post by Anthony Painter last December. 


    But I would differ from Matthew's caveat of implementing it only when we are truly ready.


    His parallel with the Child Trust Fund is interesting but we need to look at the timescales and the number of people affected. 


    CTF was a long term and excellent idea which affected only a few people immediately, the cash benefit not coming for 18 years.  This is a long time and events unfolded that led to a government looking for every opportunity to cut state spending whatever the consequences.  Cancellation of CTF was a petty act, rather like cancelling the migration impact fund in 2011, the effect of which has been a pernicious deterioration in public services where immigration is high.


    There were no howls of protest over CTF because no-one at all benefited at the time, and only a few (those born between 2002 and 2011) would ultimately suffer in 2020 and later.  This was way beyond most peoples' horizons. Equally there were no howls of protest over the MIF cancellation because there was no immediately visible impact, even though it will have contributed to the breakdown of community relations in some areas with consequences that we saw on 23rd June.


    A revenue-neutral UBI on the other hand would have an immediate effect by transferring wealth to the poorest in society who earn less than the tax free allowance and would spend the money.  It would clear the streets of the highly offensive outbreak of homelessness and if properly managed return the country to a nicer place to live with the impression that the state actually cared for people.


    Sometimes politicians have to take a judgement call - Atlee didn't wait for economic justification to set up the NHS.  I would therefore urge the RSA, should Theresa May ever call, not to give her the opt-out of waiting until we are truly ready.  Politicians should not be encouraged to prevaricate more than they do, such as over airports in the south east.  The nation is ready now.  While UBI hasn't had the publicity it deserves, it has the potential to heal a nation bitterly divided mainly as a result of large sections being forgotten by generations of politicians.

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