I had an interesting meeting with an advisor at Number Ten yesterday. We discussed some topics which I think the RSA could pick up in its research and events programme, but I was also fascinated by the way Downing Street thinks about change.
Apparently a new unit of around a dozen people has been established with what might seem a surprising combination of skills. On the one hand, it contains young policy wonks, people with skills in research, analysis and presentation. They are tasked with the quick turn round of scoping papers - including action points - on a topic which has moved toward the top of the PM’s priorities. On the other hand, the team also comprises advisors whose job is to liaise with organisations outside Government in terms not only of their specialist insight but also the role they might play in contributing to a change strategy.
In a number of policy areas – for example, public health, information transparency and new forms of procurement – the Government hasn’t sought merely to consult or regulate corporates or charities but to engage them as partners in policy development and delivery.
This is neither entirely new nor is it without its critics. All Governments try to persuade companies and third sector groups to help them deliver their objectives and provide legitimacy for their policies. But I sense a more profound shift in the mode of governance. A core idea of the Big Society is that the state is there to facilitate, not to dominate, the pursuit of policy goals. Public spending austerity means there is little or no money for ministers simply to mandate change programmes themselves; instead they need to focus on interventions which can catalyse change from other social actors.
On the whole, I support this way of thinking. Policy is seen as something which is done with society rather than to it. To be credible this means more open policy making, including being explicit about the expectations being placed on partners, and more subtle ways of thinking about state intervention. Imagine if instead of announcing out of the blue that the Government was going to abolish child poverty, Tony Blair has instigated a six month national conversation about how the whole country could sign up to, and help deliver, this goal. Not only might the goal have been further progressed and have become more embedded in the national psyche, but more of us would feel proud of the substantial progress which was made.
But three major dangers of a partnership model of policy development and implementation also stand out:
- As rows over inviting food and alcohol companies to shape public health strategy show, ministers must beware looking as though they have simply turned over policy making to outside interests, especially commercial ones. All organisations – private or third sector – have their own agendas, and behind what may be a perfectly sincere commitment to public good and corporate responsibility there will always be a harder edged calculation of self-interest. There is a role here for the public. As customers, we should encourage corporations to be good civic citizens and show our displeasure when their arguments become transparently self-serving.
- For all their failings, traditional Government policy levers such as major spending programmes and national regulation will have society-wide effects. In contrast corporate and third sector initiatives will tend to be much more limited and fragile in their impact. I wrote last week about the dangers of policy by anecdote. Pursuing change through commercial or charitable initiatives runs the danger of celebrating pockets of good practice while ignoring a general trend of deterioration.
- In my own experience it is not easy for people outside Government and politics to fully understand the challenges of policy making. Ministers have to contend with competing spending and policy priorities, Whitehall battles, media pressure, party and public expectations. Not only is a lot of external advice to Government self-interested, it is often half-baked and naïve.
Partners can also be fickle. It is relatively easy for new Governments with fresh ideas and leaders to garner engagement and support from third parties. But as the Coalition becomes more and more unpopular – and I meet few ministers who don’t see it as inevitable that it will – even the impressively innovative and positive team at Number Ten will learn to distinguish real chnage partners from fair weather friends.