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Tests to be applied to policy

How does policy get made? In the current systems parties undertake or commission research, they may take work from think-tanks and lobbyists. Some have policy forums. Given that a large part of state activity is boring, mundane stuff about how things run this is telling. It points to a mindset about the way change will happen: let’s command these actions top down and things will be better, so vote for us. As a result of this 

  • Few people are involved in the policy development process, those that do are often referred to as “policy wonks”. This has the subliminal effect of saying that they are nerds, let them get on with it
  • Politics is about doing stuff to people after the decision is made

Instead I suggest that the political process should be turned round so that it is as much about policy development as it is about delivery. For policy to be consensual it must be able to show that it has addressed a problem that needs to be solved and comes with a consensus around the solution. For example consider the debate about nationalisation vs privatisation – two ideological positions battling out over a terrain where the framing is about ownership. I believe there was a problem and that problem was management, there still is a problem and the problem is still management. Ownership matters to the extent that we have world class businesses based I the UK, but ownership does not matter if we are simply debating the best way to run a hospital or empty the dustbins. In making this statement so explicit because if we try to buy a service on the cheap we'll get what we pay for. We will be complicit in poor service deliver, the exploitation of service workers and the toleration of profiteering. 

Moreover, the problem of management is directly related to size and power.

The bigger an organisation the more difficult it is to cater for exceptions, remain flexible and learn. The more centralised the power the more decisions can be made which are arbitrary and carried by dictate. In public ownership the problem was scale and lack of democracy; sometimes this was moderated by a public service ethos. In private ownership the problem is power with lack of democracy often exacerbated by the absence of real competition, regulatory weakness and the expectation of high returns. Our debate is stuck in a dialogue of the deaf – Labour is accused of returning to the large state and the Conservatives stick doggedly to reducing the state at all costs. With only light touch regulation public service suffers whist a fortunate group of executives fill their boots.(Note: Milking it)

Change the problem definition to how do we get good governance? In a holistic political economy the starting point is that policy formulation belongs to everyone – and we can therefore devise a set of tests for good policy formulation. (Note: Inspired by the Five Tests for Democracy)

  1. What is the problem and what are the characteristics of a good solution? This brings in systems thinking, and must look at potential knock-on effects and unintended consequences as well as opportunities for setting up virtuous circles
  2. Who needs to be involved? All stakeholders (and some representation for citizens by right)
  3. How will it be implemented? Including trials and fine tuning, where is it on the scale of urgency vs. importance?
  4. How will we measure its success? What are the success factors, how will we know its working?
  5. How can we modify it? We may aspire to right first time but will not achieve it, we need to build in incremental improvement from the start

The definition of the problem is important because it is about framing. The systems view must be applied else we end up with ameliorative measures that do not make the necessary changes.

Sure-start is a good example. In its original form it put additional resources into poorer area and deliberately allowed access to everyone in the area. This avoided the issue of stigmatising by making the provision something that everyone would want. However without the robust articulation of the problem and why the approach was taken the results have been undermined first by putting sure-start into all areas, and then responding to the impossibility of funding by means testing.

Getting the characteristics of the solution right means thinking it through properly

Policy seems to be based on research carried out by the parties, commission ed by them or conducted by interest groups and think tanks. In systems terms and teasing out the effects will a virtuous circle be created or will unintended consequences undermine.(Note: Taking Evidence). I’d expect this to lead to more structural changes and less sticking plaster.

Working tax credits are an example. If the problem is defined as poor wages and the minimum wage is defined too low then the taxpayer ends up subsidising the wages of thousands of people. Unviable businesses are getting a free ride at the taxpayers’ expense and we now have a working poor set of people who are on welfare.(Note: Diluted to Death?)

Who needs to be involved?

We rarely ask this question. So far as I can see this is a major flaw of all reform thinking since its culturally accepted that governments bring in change. That means it is top down so it is done to us not with us. I see no reason why many services should not be run, administered or overseen by their users.

There are a few examples of tenants being involved in housing associations and since the push to academy schools has been slowed down we still have quite a lot of parent governors.

Self-build housing is an area where the person in need can help himself or herself – in an empowering way. We are massively behind other countries in self build housing. In the Netherlands the government would buy the land, provide the services (roads, sewers), zone it for self-build, and ensure the self-builders could get finance. It’s hard to imagine that a residential area developed like this would lack community spirit or have a large vandalism problem.

How will it be implemented, and how will we know if it’s a success?

Typically we don’t provide the ways and means and apply an idea country wide without trialling and learning.

Care provision; We take care away from the NHS but don’t provide for joined up administration so end up with bed blocking. We then allow the private sector to provide the bulk of care but allow the social funding to fall so that homes will not take residents who cannot pay. Where care is outsourced we allow companies to use bad employment practices (not paying for travel between appointment, very short visiting times – we measure throughput not quality). In the process we all become complicit in the results by insisting the councils accept the lowest tender. We then define the problem as quality of care and set up the care quality commission but don’t provide anything like the infrastructure that exists for inspecting schools.

How can we modify it?

Nothing is going to be right first time. OK I am aware of some businesses that try to establish quality control processes in such as way as to deliver right first time but this is in the context of a repeatable process or specified product. When it comes to innovative solutions the usual approach it to prototype, implement on a small scale and then scale up with any necessary changes. I am not aware of government doing this. I am acutely aware that even small government services are massively bigger in scale than anything the private sector deals with which may point why outsourcing and commissioning by government is so often subject to overspend and delays. One thing for certain is that a 5 year election cycle in inimical to gradual improvement through organisational learning.