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A couple of weeks ago we hosted a session at a conference for Government heads of policy - a network of senior officials who lead policy in different departments in the UK Government.

We asked the officials to consider what are the biggest barriers to change, and what might be the strongest enablers of change? It turns out both questions have the same answer: process.

So we looked at what made process good, and why a focus on the goals of change is vital.  

The problems with policy: too narrow and path dependent

The topic for our session with policy leads was the climate challenge (ahead of COP26). But it was also an opportunity to explore generic issues about policy and change. 

Matthew started the session by summarising the RSA’s case for ‘thinking like a system and acting like an entrepreneur’. 

In a complex, fast moving and volatile world, policy - particularly central Government policy - needs to balance two inherent tensions, each of which exacerbates the other:

  • First, it is too narrow. It seeks to change one or more variables in a dynamic system. Unpredicted and unintended consequences are inevitable. 
  • Second, policy interventions suffer from different forms of path dependency. It may be that a policy mandate is too inflexible, so resources and effort continue to be invested even when there are strong indications that things are not working out as expected. (Conversely, a policy that doesn’t initially succeed might be abandoned just as reforms to it are starting to pay off.)

One way to address these is to think about existing and desired states systematically while pursuing change in an adaptive, experimental, even opportunistic way. But, as Matthew told the group, the problem is not so much with the idea of thinking like system and acting like an entrepreneur – which most people seem to find convincing – but with being able to operate in this way.

Which bought us to the subject of process in government, where we explored what made process good and bad.  

Bad process and good process

‘Bad’ process is time wasting and energy sapping. It can reinforce barriers to collaboration, solidify hierarchies and hamper adaptiveness.

‘Good process’ energises people, creates spaces for different ideas to emerge, builds trust and collective capacity.

The bad and good could be distinguished along several dimensions. Here are some:

Bad process:

  • Routine/happens because it happens            
  • Limited preparation and follow through         
  • Little or no facilitation            
  • Reinforces hierarchies, excludes key voices  
  • Rigid accountability focussed on blame           
  • Always formal and mandated           
  • Low trust/transactional       

Good process:

  • Mission/goal oriented – happens because it makes a difference
  • Sees process as part of a flow of change – clear accountability
  • Facilitated by people with necessary skills and techniques 
  • Inclusive, what matters is the quality of contributions not their source
  • Collective accountability focussed on learning 
  • Mixes formal and informal settings and methods, often voluntary
  • Trust enhancing/collaborative

Why is bad process so prevalent and good process so rare?

Because bad process is often the default. In the short term, bad process is easier, less intensive-resource, and less risky than good process.

Bringing people together in inclusive processes

Bringing key actors together in inclusive processes help us both understand the system that is maintaining the status quo and building a joint sense of mission for a new status quo.

It also helps people start to identify and organise around key opportunities for change. 

One of the most positive developments to have occurred in and around Whitehall in recent years is the emergence of informal, system spanning networks of public officials animated by shared values and goals such as One Team Gov and a whole host of bottom up networks on topics as diverse as wellbeing, inclusion, and climate change.

Andrea shared with the group some practical tools for policy practitioners and other change makers. The use of these tools has enabled innovators like the Policy Lab team to see how different combinations of methods are relevant to different types of challenge. As a change programme evolves so must the processes and tools needed to support it.

Process is the foundation for change

Moving beyond Whitehall, it is vital that funders (like trusts and foundations) appreciate the importance of good process to the likelihood of achieving change.

At the RSA, our social action accelerator model has been powerful and is garnering growing interest, but it is also expensive. Public agencies are always short of money and investing in process can seem optional or even wasteful. Delivery organisations are understandably focussed on the pressing needs of their client groups.  

Structures, products and services are the bricks of change, but a foundation is only as strong as the mortar that holds them together.


Dr Andrea Siodmok is an RSA Fellow and Deputy Director of the Policy Innovation Unit.

Matthew Taylor is Chief Executive of the RSA. 

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