Some policies become reality within months or weeks. Talk of restricting the use of plastics quickly gathered momentum immediately after the BBC series Blue Planet II showed footage of marine pollution in November 2017. The film appeared to have tipped the balance of public opinion and kicked the government into action.
A plastic straw and cotton bud ban has now been proposed, over 40 companies in the UK Plastics Pact have pledged to cut out non-recyclable plastic in the next seven years, and only a few weeks ago a Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance was announced which would ban microbeads in certain products and reduce plastic bag use.
Of course, many will argue that these initiatives, as well intentioned as they are, barely scratch the surface. What about a ban on all single-use plastic? Is that too ambitious? Is a small but quickly achievable policy measure better than an ambitious but far more transformative long-term one?
Where some policies are snapped up quickly, for pragmatic, ideological, or opportunistic reasons (riding the wave of public opinion), others build-up over years, gathering steam (evidence, attention, legitimacy, and urgency) and finally turning from an idea into law or a voluntary pledge. A recent example is the sugary drinks tax, or Soft Drinks Industry Levy, which came into effect in early April 2018.
Finding the policy sweet spot
As Sustain’s report 'How the sugary drinks tax was won' shows, a large number of factors contributed to the success of the campaign. Although the sugary drinks tax was first recommended in 2013 (with the support of over 60 organisations), considerable academic research and policy analysis, both in the UK and internationally, had been around since the early 2000s. The report identifies the main success of the campaign as the breadth of the coalition it was able to gather in support of the tax. It also mentions how creating an interactive tool engaged individuals by enabling them to see what the impact of the tax would look like in their local area. Other lessons from the campaign include: keeping up the momentum with a continuous ‘drip-feed of stories and background noise’ to establish the idea in people’s consciousness; being opportunistic and taking advantage of strategic moments (important event launches or government select committees) to increase exposure; and involving the right ‘big name’ – the campaigning chef Jamie Oliver’s support helped to make the idea more mainstream.
From vague to vogue
For every policy idea that gets widespread attention, hundreds of others disappear as rapidly as they appear - whether they are clearly set out in a report, briefing or blog, or are built into the center of a public facing campaign. Of the 1000 food, farming and countryside-related policies we reviewed as part of our Call for Ideas, only a handful will ever be developed and implemented. Many of the ‘tragically vague’ proposals, the ones that talk about ‘examining potential’, ‘better integrating policy’ or ‘co-ordinating groups’ without being clear about how to do this, will have little opportunity to establish themselves in people’s consciousness, let alone gain the support of over 150,000 people through an online petition. The same will be true of ‘proposals for more proposals’, that is, proposals to develop programmes, strategies or plans. Other proposals may be seen as either too ambitious or too straightforward to even gain attention.
Why are some policies more successful than others? An Institute of Government (IoG) survey identified ‘political interest and commitment’ as well as ‘appropriateness of policy to socioeconomic context’ as the key drivers of policy success. But this seems to leave little opportunity for ‘practical and radical solutions’ of the kind our Call for Ideas is currently gleaning, unless the ideas have already been shown to have some traction in the current system. A subsequent IoG report examined policy successes of the last 30 years, including implementation of the minimum wage – which it considered the greatest policy success of all – and identified seven common requirements:
- Understand the past and learn from failure
- Open up the policy process
- Be rigorous in analysis and use of evidence
- Take time and build in scope for iteration and adaptation
- Recognise the importance of individual leadership and strong personal relationships
- Create new institutions to overcome policy inertia
- Build a wider constituency of support.
Three Cs and an unfreeze
This could be boiled down to three requirements: commitment, co-operation, and corroboration.
The sugary drinks tax success story fits these requirements. Commitment, or ‘sticking with it’, in the form building momentum behind a key policy over five years. Co-operation in the form of a wide coalition including medical and public health practitioners, academics, teachers, chefs, journalists, politicians and campaigners. And corroboration, with almost two decades of research and evidence gathering.
And yet, sometimes opportunities present themselves that help to ‘open up the policy process’ (requirement #2 in the list above), and accelerate implementation of a new ideas. Perhaps this is something along the lines of what Michael Gove meant by the ‘unfrozen moment’ of leaving the European Union. If the IoG survey above is anything to go by, a successful policy may well need to be politically opportunistic as well as appropriate to the current socioeconomic context, that is, a proposal that can take advantage of this momentary unfreezing (by first changing then refreezing – to follow Kurt Lewin’s model of change).
Given the relatively short window of time available at the moment, perhaps the formula should be to aim for commitment and co-operation first and focus on corroboration later – in the form of pilot projects and short-term trials. Do we need to act fast before the mercury drops and the freeze returns? Or, as Anthony King and Ivor Crewe suggest in their book ‘The Blunders of Governments’, is this sense of urgency too often misplaced, manufactured, and ultimately dangerous?