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No one in this election is talking about how government works

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  • Devolution
  • Leadership

As the election campaign warms up, we hear more eye-catching and radical promises.

From free broadband and universal learning accounts to a higher minimum wage to more pension promises. The list gets longer every day. Yet, while the content seems fresh and radical the underlying model of change – or lack of it – is anything but.

Recently, I gave my latest RSA Annual Lecture. This year it was on the subject of economic insecurity. But today, with the election, I have been recalling the lecture I gave in 2016. It was called ‘Why policy fails’. Here’s an extract:

Our evolving RSA methodology has reflected and reinforced a growing doubt about what I have called ‘the policy presumption’. By this I mean an assumption among ministers, civil servants and policy advisors, but equally all of us, and it really is all of us, who from time to time urge them to act:

The assumption that, on the whole, the most effective way to accomplish social change is to pull the big levers of central Government policy; legislation, tax and spend and earmarked funding streams.

There is an obvious problem with this view: big policy is hard to get right. Very hard. From any perspective the recent record of central Government policy isn’t great. There are the disasters, like the poll tax, the Child Support Agency, and rail privatization. Universal Credit is in the process of joining that inglorious list.

Then there is the underwhelming impact of thirty-five years of continuous reform of public services. There have been hundreds of pieces of legislation and thousands of targets.

Yet, had we simply devolved control of education, health, policing and other public services to cities and regions and let them get on with it, with just a limited power of central intervention when things went wrong, would public services really be in a worse position?

And, despite all this policy activity, we are living with the failure to tackle major problems; social inequality and lack of mobility, the economic marginalisation of many areas outside the South East, stagnant living standards, the scale of unmet care needs, low productivity and an economy still deeply dependent on debt.

How government works hasn’t been part of the 2019 election campaign

When Tony Blair first get elected in 1997, modernising the way Government worked was big part of the story.

Ideas like ‘joined up government’ and ‘public service agreements’ were in vogue and there were some real innovations like the Policy Action Teams set up by the social exclusion unit or the Number Ten Delivery Unit.

Not everything worked. Eventually, like any administration, New Labour became less open to new approaches, but there was at least an effort to address failed policy making and delivery.

David Cameron too diagnosed problems with the ‘Whitehall way’. He promised the creation of a ‘post-bureaucratic state’ which would deliver a ‘big society’. Like most ideas championed by Steve Hilton, Cameron’s ideas supremo, this one was long on aspiration and extremely short on application. 

According to some of his blog posts, Boris Johnson’s muse Dominic Cummings is even more dismissive of the Government machine and has very strong ideas about how to revolutionise policy.

Yet, so far in this election we have seen a complete reversion of what I referred to in that 2016 lecture as ‘the policy presumption’.

Social change is apparently very little to do with citizen engagement or initiative. There is no need for governmental to be more agile, adaptive or experimental.

If big government is back in fashion, so is the assumption that the best way to change the world is through government policy. It will be interesting to see if this attitude will be for the life of the next Parliament, or just for the Christmas election.

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  • A belated contribution is that I do believe there is an urgent need for a cross-party examination (possibly led by the RSA?) of the key question: How do governments add value to society? 

    As outlined in more detail in:

    https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/rsa-comment/2018/07/how-do-governments-add-value-to-society


  • It seems that in recent decades, especially across the Anglo-west (UK, USA, AU, CA), there's been an invidious tendency for governments to become less transparent and more inclined to privatise critical infrastructure. This dissolution of the ownership of societal infrastructure has lead to significant public fragmentation; the uber rich at one end of the spectrum, the dispossessed at the other end, and the increasingly precarious position of those in the middle.


    The "free market" approach works very well when there's a fast feedback between competing offerings of free standing products and services. But when this approach is applied to infrastructure, it's a recipe for disaster. Here in AU there are many examples of this - outsourcing of security services in the offshore refugee detainment camps, at massive costs. The under performance of the national broadband network, installed at immense cost and still only giving patchy coverage. The ongoing battle over the allocation of limited water resources in some of the major river systems.


    Attempts to investigate behind the scenes government deliberations on the public / private deals that have been done, through FOI requests, have either been stalled or hugely redacted.


    It looks like the concept of "public service" is becoming a quaint idea from another age. At least we have some contrarian examples such as the state government in California refusing to go along with the Feds dismissal of emissions standards. Maybe more local action, going feral where required, is a way of getting away from the now obsolete "business as usual" scenario, and into a more cohesive and future focussed mode of thinking.

  • Policy implementation challenges should be an area of more research interest - especially at the micro level of how public sector organisations react to budget constraints in the short term and how this creates capacity and capability constraints to introduce transformation and change in the long term.  It will be interesting to see whether the end of austerity (whatever the outcome of the election on Thursday) results in reform and improved public services outcomes or simply releases the pressure and allows change to be put back into the ‘too difficult’ tray.   

  • For three to four years the UK political system has been "paralysed". Vince Cable used this term about seven times in a recent ten minute speech. Given that the system is in such a state, the urgent question to ask appears to be rather, how to make the system work, not so much, how it works. In modifying the question put forward by Terence Benderson, one could ask, why the RSA does not discuss this central problem in a qualified fashion. It appears a shame given the commitment and manifold perspectives of the people engaged in the RSA and what they could contribute. My suggestion on the issue, of how to make the political system work, is based on Systems Thinking. It suggests that no system works effectively without effective control by the driver behind the system. In democracy, it is the people who govern. We need a "Society for Effective Democracy" as the driver for making the democratic political system work. "No one talks about it when there isn't an election either", says John Mortimer in his comment. There are gigantic political issues threating our societies. How much time  can we afford to lose? I have suggested to one of our parliamentary candidates repeatedly by the way and also to the Head of a party that making the political system perform should be one of the key issues on their campaign program. For some reason, that suggestion has not borne any fruit so far. It does not seem to be in line with established political thinking and with what the electorate supposedly wants to hear. Moreover, politicians wouldn't probably know how to make the political system work. Another argument for establishing urgently a "Society for Effective Democracy" carried by wider society. 

    • I share the view that the political system is not working anywhere near well enough to handle the considerable issues ahead of us - particularly having regard to the societal risks we could face if we do not make considerable headway in achieving all 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals within the UK (and encouraging similar constructive action across the world). I do think there are reasonable and reasoned solutions - and the RSA's work on encouraging Deliberative Democracy is to be applauded - but I also take the view that we need much more consideration of what the shared future purpose, ethical principles and sound methods of politics could and should for us to have an effective democracy for the 21st century.

  • The message of the referendum result has yet to sunk in. The British establishment (the revolving doors of academic, big business, special interest group, media and public sector quangocrats and semi-hereditary political tribes), which has evolved to survive and exploit so many waves of change, appears to have lost touch with most of the population. Those who did so well out of our membership of the EU are still in a state of denial. In consequence the entire steam-age, Whitehall-centric, Stalinist (as in target driven) nation state is at risk. Will the Internet age replacement be international (as in Global players like Google), regional (as in EU), local (as in County, City or smaller) or (more likely) an evolving and more democratically accountable hybrid? Or will "the UK Establishment" live up to its traditional pragmatism and find a new way forward, based on algorithmic illusions of people-centric policies, "mediated" by Haldane style committees of experts? Discuss.            

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