Making policy public

Our aim with the new think tank project is to inform better social policy. In what ways do we think policy might be better through our approach, and what is it that makes for ‘better’ policy anyway?

‘Better policy’ as defined in Whitehall (and thinktankland) might be different from the definition put forward by those at the frontline and by the public. For most of us, good policy is whatever improves people’s lives and/or saves money. Obvious enough – but not necessarily a view shared in policymaking circles.

The Institute for Government published a report last month on policy success. As voted by the Political Studies Association, the biggest successes of the past 30 years include privatisation, the introduction of the national minimum wage, Scottish devolution, the ban on smoking in public places, pension reform and the Climate Change Act. The IfG’s definition of ‘success’ here is “policies… which achieve or exceed their initial goals in such a way that they become embedded; able to survive a change of government; represent a starting point for subsequent policy development or remove the issue from the immediate policy agenda.”

That’s a definition of policies that endure (and there’s a lot to be said for greater continuity in policy, particularly from a practitioner perspective). But it’s not necessarily a definition of policies that are effective. Are we excluding privatised energy utilities and railways, and mounting public anger at their seemingly ever-increasing prices? That just under a quarter of UK adults still smoke, given that smoking is responsible for 80,000 premature deaths every year? That nearly 40 per cent of adults don’t have any pension provision? Rising carbon emissions? The desire for Scottish independence, which devolution (for some of its proponents at least) was meant to finish off?

It would have been interesting to know what the public considers the best policies in recent history. This might also have brought with it a different understanding of ‘success’ – less perhaps about policies that stick, more about policies that benefit society. Just as an experiment, we’ve started our own survey for the best policies of the past 30 years. Let us know your views.

The former perspective on ‘policy success’ – something of an echo of the Yes Minister ‘it was a bad idea but terribly well-executed’ school of thought – might reflect the difficulty policymakers have inducing lasting social change, in turn because this requires a much more open, learning-based and systemic approach than government is typically able to embrace. (See one of the best papers published by any think tank in the past 20 years, Jake Chapman’s System Failure, which despite being widely acclaimed for its plea to recognise and embrace complexity, has seemingly been forgotten if we look today at how Whitehall and, ironically, think tanks continue to develop policy in largely mechanistic and reductionist ‘command and control’ terms).

Lasting change in this sense is often likely to require the development of broader and more sustained coalitions. The IfG report notes the importance of ‘building a wider constituency of support’, but seems to limit this to cross-party alliances and working with campaigning civil society organisations (such as Friends of the Earth) – which is not the same as working with wider society.

To return our new think tank then, we want research and policy work to be led by practitioners and the public not just because this could help inform ‘better policy’ in the sense of more likely to achieve government-defined objectives, but also because it could help us to (re-) define what ‘success’ is, which is to say what we care about changing or improving. In other words, it’s about democratic deliberation, not just ‘driving delivery’. So don’t forget to vote.



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