Welcome to the real world
07 June 2011
In a world of decentralisation and complex problems with multiple actors, policymakers will need to recognise that many of the real policy decisions are being made well beyond the confines of Whitehall and Westminster, says Jill Rutter
In April's Public Servant magazine, Professor Alex Stevens described his eye-opening experience of working as a researcher embedded in government – well motivated, bright civil servants struggling to cope with "saturation" of evidence.
But he also pointed out that they were working in a system that puts a premium on "action" over "contradiction" and "certainty" over "accuracy". Put bluntly, policy making does not take place in a hermetically sealed vacuum, but in a highly politicised and pressured environment, where individuals seek to serve what they assume are the desires of those for whom they work.
That was the picture that emerged from the research the Institute for Government undertook to look at the reality of policy making. It revealed the frustrations of both ministers and civil servants at the reality of the policy making process. Stevens would recognise many of them – the imperatives of producing initiatives; civil servants self-censoring advice because they rule some areas out of play politically and, above all, the need to make decisions, and the difficulty of acknowledging uncertainty and unknowns – and of changing course.
That research underlined how attempts at improving policy making under the last government failed to get as much traction as they might because they airbrushed out the politics and ministers, treating policy making as a technocratic process. Those attempts – and why they fell short – are discussed in more detail in our report Policy Making in the Real World. The new policy skills framework, released by the civil service head of policy profession last year, finally acknowledges "politics" as one of the three domains civil servants need to manage – but is still short on giving them any tools or techniques to do so and leaves ministers out of the picture.
So, is it unrealistic to improve policy making? We argue not. First, while there are many examples of poor policy, there are also policies that have changed things for the better. Last year, we asked the members of the Political Studies Association to choose their "most successful" policies of the past 30 years – the list was topped by the national minimum wage, devolution and privatisation alongside the Northern Ireland peace process. There have been other stealth successes – like the reduction in smoking rates or the improvement in road safety. So good policy is possible and we are looking at the factors behind those successes.
But second, we think that it is possible to tilt the odds in favour of making policy better – not by ignoring the importance of politics and ministers, but by creating systems that are more resilient to the pressures that politics inevitably brings. So we want the official and political heads of each department to commit to a series of "policy fundamentals" including open idea generation, appropriate use of evidence and evaluation and attention to policy design: the building blocks of good policy.
It is not enough, however, to make that commitment without recognising the need to alter the incentives inside the system to create pressures for better policy making. So we suggest new structures and controls to reinforce the fundamentals – not least by making the civil service, through the permanent secretary, responsible for ensuring that good process has been observed in policy making. This extends the current "accounting officer" responsibility from value for money to the quality of the policy process – with ministers still responsible, and rightly so, for the final decision.
Those changed incentives need to be backed up by three things. First, ministers and civil servants need to recognise that policy works best when the political blends effectively with the technocratic (and great working relations between ministers and civil servants have been a repeated theme in all our reunions on successful policy) – and that means that they recognise the value each brings to the process. Second, the civil service needs both to enhance its skills and value knowledge and expertise – both internal and external. It needs more connections to academia; equally academia needs to understand how to make its insights useful to policymakers.
Finally, our concept of policy making has to change. In a world of decentralisation and complex problems with multiple actors, policymakers – both ministerial and official – will need to recognise that many of the real policy decisions are being made well beyond the confines of Whitehall and Westminster. Civil servants need to see their role not as sitting on top of a delivery chain, but, as we discuss in our working paper, as system stewards. Success will not come from looking up to ministers and superiors, but from looking out at what is going on beyond the department and judging whether there is too great a divergence from the desired direction of travel. The real world, rather than Westminster, then becomes the arbiter of what works. Jill Rutter is programme director at the Institute for Government and co-author of Policy Making in the Real World