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For those of us who think the Westminster and Whitehall model of public policy is fatally flawed, there was cause for hope in speeches last week by Ed Miliband and Jon Cruddas: Devolving power, opening up Government – especially its data – and building services around the preferences and needs of citizens were all important themes.

The problem is we have heard most of this before. A recent Institute for Government pamphlet surveys the mixed record of initiatives in an English system that remains among the most centralised in the developed world and concludes:

While all parties have been good at making commitments to devolve power, governments have found it hard to implement decentralising reforms in practice.

And here is a quote that would fit neatly into either Labour speech:

The effects of this redistribution of power will be felt throughout politics, with people in control of the things that matter to them, a country where the political system is open and trustworthy, and power redistributed from the political elite to the man and woman in the street 

These are the words of David Cameron in 2009, promising as Prime Minister to create a ‘post bureaucratic state’.

Yet, when it comes to letting go of power, the Coalition has been another Government with a mixed to mediocre record. On the positive side of the ledger lie significant initiatives including City Deals and community budgets, on the negative side are the top down reforms and ceaseless micro management of major Whitehall service departments, as well as the decision to place the main burden of austerity on to the shoulders of local authorities. In addition there are half baked schemes including Police and Crime Commissioners and the Community Right to Bid which someone with a Machiavellian outlook might suspect were designed to give people-power a bad name.

I largely exempt from my scepticism the Open Policy Making team in the Cabinet Office. My enthusiasm however has less to do with what has yet been achieved – not much - than with its starting point. It is this analysis of the fundamental failings, not just of aspects of central Government, but a whole way of thinking about power and policy which is missing from the account of both Miliband and even the more thoughtful Cruddas.

To believe that next time could be different for Labour we need to hear points like these:

For many decades the overall record of central Government public policy has been atrocious

I am not here merely referring to the well-known cock-ups forensically analysed by Crewe and King in their excellent recent ‘Blunders of our Governments‘ (e.g. Child Support Agency, London Underground PPP, Poll Tax), nor even the failure of major outsourcing projects like NHS patient records or most of the Work Programme.

In the thirty years since Margaret Thatcher’s second term our health service and schools have been subject to almost continuous intensive reform. Imagine if across this time, hospitals, GPs and schools had received the same funding to spend as they deemed best but with some basic mechanisms to ensure community and citizen accountability. Imagine also that instead of all the legislation and regulation and ring fenced budgets, central Government had restricted its role to acting as a strategic resource providing information, good ideas and networks, and only intervening in extremis and then only to demand a local solution. Isn’t it pretty likely that the health and school system would have evolved – learning from success and failure – into something equal or better than what we now have? Then, finally, imagine that the many tens of billions of pounds that have been spent on centrally mandated re-organisation had been available to invest in front line services.

The forces making central Government policy inept are accelerating

Partly this is about politics and the media: parties getting weaker and more unrepresentative, news becoming 24 hour and increasingly shrill in its desperate attempt to grab public attention. But more fundamental is the complexity and pace of change of modern life.

It is an axiom of Open Policy Making that change outside large organisations is now often faster than change can take place inside such bureaucracies (leaving aside the whole problem about the demarcation of inside and outside). Government with its cumbersome processes of policy making, regulation and accountability is even slower to adapt than the major corporations that have for years been trying to discover the secret to ‘agile’ operation. The slow, sludgy, distorting feedback loops of traditional Government policy-making are a recipe for continual under-performance and occasional farce.

Rather than the problem for policy being mobilisation, the problem for mobilisation is policy

The tools of traditional policy makers are regulation and money. Confronted by growing evidence of failure and public disenchantment, Whitehall decision makers have sought to graft on elements of public engagement. There has been ‘voice’ in the form of consultation and various consumer rights and ‘choice` in the form of greater diversity of provision and some capacity for citizens themselves to decide who they want as a service provider. Not all of this has been superficial. For example, direct payments for social care is a genuinely radical shift, albeit hampered by falling budgets. But by taking a narrow consumerist angle on policy problems, some reforms have generated bad outcomes. Enhanced parental choice over school places has become a stronger driver of inequality.

Most new initiatives from those who consider themselves modernisers are an extension of voice and choice, like Miliband’s promise to strengthen the right of parents to demand intervention in weak schools (never mind that such a power already exists). But this misses the point.

Generally, the goals of public policy – a better educated, more law-abiding, healthier citizenry – by their very nature depend on public mobilisation. This is not just about individual behaviour change but also wider social consent to change, as well as civic engagement in designing and driving that change. Thus the question should not be ‘how do we mobilise citizens around the policy we have chosen?’ but ‘who are the citizens and groups who influence outcomes in any given area?’, ‘how might we engage and mobilise them behind a shared vision of progress?’ and ‘does that involve traditional central policy (with all is inherent failings) at all?’

The way to predict the future is to create it

Jon Cruddas offered five principles for Labour’s policy review: ‘1. Transformation 2. Prevention 3. Devolution, 4. Collaboration and cooperation, 5. Citizenship and contribution. But what about ‘design’?.

Observance of Chatham House rules requires me to protect the source of the following brilliant observations from an official currently seconded to the Cabinet Office.

‘Having never worked in Whitehall I spent a few weeks wondering around, going to meetings and watching people work. After a while I figured it out: Central government is basically a publishing house. It is full of people writing stuff, contracts, consultation papers, regulations. These things take ages to write. Because they are so long and complex they inevitably contain flaws that are only discovered when they are implemented.

‘Innovation for designers involves doing stuff and testing it on people, for policy makers it means writing stuff and selling it to people.

‘Policy makers and designers have a fundamentally different view of mistakes. Designers like mistakes because they provide useful information that can be used to adapt and improve the model. Policy makers hate mistakes because they are so hard to undo, so they tend to ignore or suppress information about failings.

Around the world social innovation labs and service designers are making incursions into Government, but their work still feels tenuous, a bolt-on to the creaking old system. A design-based approach to change needs to be seen as a radical democratising project deserving support from the top not just a clever bit of technique to be tolerated at the margins…….

There is little in this post that is incompatible with the themes of Labour’s recent speeches. Indeed, from a passing reference he makes to expanding the work of the Government Digital Service, it seems Cruddas knows an incoming Labour Government should try to preserve the best of what is going on in the Cabinet Office.

But Labour and the other parties must take heed of the failure of previous governance reform. Cruddas and Miliband argue eloquently that the reform they advocate reflects the best traditions of the centre left. But Cameron maintained the same thing from the right. Vague aspirations and a basket of unconnected policies will not do. We need the central pillars of old policy making to be dismantled for the simple reason that the only alternative is continued failure.

The real test will be this year’s party conferences and next year’s manifestos. In the run up to the election the Institute for Government’s prosaic observation should be put in neon lights above every party HQ:

‘Party leaders must also be careful not to allow their colleagues to develop strong positions on policy areas they hope to decentralise’

Postscript: This afternoon I met up with Susannah Walden who has been working on our Whole Person Recovery project. Maybe because it's her last week here she was  frank about the challenges of our 'people-powered' approach and what we have had to learn from getting things wrong as well as right. The fact that user-driven, design based, experimental change is hard is another - perhaps the most important  - reason we need to understand that existing policy methodologies are bust. Otherwise when things get tough we will be tempted to revert to the illusion of central control.

 

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