Ten reasons why we need a new approach to developing social policy – 2. Policy would stand a better chance of achieving its objectives

This is the second in a series of posts on why social policy should be developed by and with the people who use and provide public and voluntary services. We’ll publish the whole series over the next two weeks, and we welcome your comments.

In the policy world we sometimes appear to forget that ‘policy’ doesn’t stop at writing a pamphlet or publishing a bill. Whether policy ‘lives’ and fulfills the objectives set for it depends in part how easy it is to implement and operationalise, and whether a community of stakeholders who want it to succeed has been recruited to champion it. The best way for both of these to happen is to open-up policy research and development to a much broader range of participants.

On making policy easier to implement, the expertise and experience of those who work at the frontline in public and voluntary services – as well as those who use and rely on them – is largely neglected in current policy research and development. This expertise could help to design policy that stands a better chance of being implemented effectively. This doesn’t just apply to those at the frontline of course, but to anyone at any level of ‘the system’ who is responsible for taking policy from pamphlet to pavement.

Part of the reason for this neglect is that, for all the talk of performance improvement and ‘deliverology‘ over the past couple of decades (or ‘Mickey Mouse command and control’ if you’re John Seddon), there’s often still a gulf between those who develop policy and those who are responsible for making it real. Few people in the policy world (by which I mean senior civil servants, special advisers, think tankers and the politicians drawn increasingly from this narrow ‘political class’) have much practical experience beyond ‘thinking’, and they especially tend to lack any ‘doing’ experience in the sense of managing the delivery of programmes and services at scale.

The day-to-day demands of delivery might not be as glamorous as writing and publishing policy papers (on the policy wonk measure of desirability at least), but it’s equally if not more important to policy success. Despite this, delivery remains largely a mystery to most people in policy – something that ‘someone else does’. A civil servant who contacted us described the problem in the following way: while there is at least some public visibility when it comes to policy development (with consultations and so on), there is little transparency and political ownership of the implementation phase. The result, they suggest, is that when promised outcomes or savings are not achieved, it is the policy rather than the implementation that gets the blame. This sets off another hunt for ‘new ideas’ – what David Walker calls a restless ‘neophilia‘ – rather than the collective learning which might focus on how implementation, delivery and administration could be improved.

The most obvious way to capture this kind of learning would be to open-up policy research and development to more ‘doers’ – those nearer to and at the frontline. After all, implementation is necessarily a shared endeavour; it’s not about a single organisation winning the contest of ideas (or ‘think tank of the year’). Collective development of policy could also help to reduce the amount of policy that currently gets ‘lost in translation’ between the centre and local implementation.

This is why the Government missed an opportunity by not releasing at a much earlier stage a version of its NHS risk register (I recognise that they don’t see it this way). It’s likely that the quality of the risk analysis would have been greatly improved if it was conducted publicly and openly, by inviting medical professionals, managers, patients and other interested parties to use their experience and expertise to identify potential implementation problems and propose solutions – and remember, this is to help implement a policy (GP-led commissioning) that most practitioners agree with.

This brings us, briefly, to the second reason to open-up policy research and development – building a community of stakeholders to support successful policy implementation. If policy was developed more collaboratively, it would in all likelihood have many more champions amongst the frontline practitioners and the public (including service users) that had played a role in shaping it. This might be thought of as ‘naive’ by McKinseyites, but it’s been identified as one of the factors in policy success by an Institute for Government report published earlier this year, and illustrated by examples such as the ban on smoking in public places, the Climate Change Act, Scottish devolution and the introduction of the national minimum wage. Ironically, open and collaborative development might even be a hidden success factor in policies that the ‘deliverologists’ point to as proof for their ‘blueprint’ approach – see for example this review of Michael Barber’s book on education reform. Participation and collaboration is also how we want to develop this project – so let us know your thoughts.