No one in this election is talking about how government works - RSA

No one in this election is talking about how government works

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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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  • While there will always be those who build careers on keeping the policy presumption wheel turning, Civil Servants in Central Departments get this. Many are crying out for change in how we think about solving public policy problems, it just feels the the instruments of state and political process make it very difficult to act within the system as it is. Clearly the most innovative work is being done outside central government, but there are a range of issues that can only be tackled centrally

  • No-one talks about it when there isn't an election either. Wouldn't it be a good topic to make a national discussion, if the media could get out of the way of sound bites, and blame, and focus on enquiry and learning?

    The throwing around of numbers to impress voters is shocking and I hope that the media can play their role and examine what is behind the numebrs. But by that time how many voters will have moved on to the next number?

    • I appreciate this comment John. I think that what we hear at election time is largely superficial, misleading and a waste of air space. I recently tried to have a nuanced discussion with some young people canvassing on my door step. When I tried to question their assumptions they began to engage in quite an interesting conversation but as time was pressing had to revert to throwing numbers and slogans. They agreed that there were political discussions to be had that seem impossible in the run up to an election. I have never seen so many people bewildered by politics and so interested as now. 

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