Breaking the policy churn cycle

By David Donaldson

Monday March 20, 2017

unusual and challenging labyrinth

Politicians love a good machinery of government rejig. Shifting around a few portfolios or creating a new agency hold out the promise of finally fixing some of the problems their constituents and the experts keep complaining about.

But some areas of policy are redesigned so regularly that the new agencies barely get a chance to start implementation, let alone prove themselves through experience, before being abolished.

To make matters worse, a chronic lack of institutional memory means the new regime is often a reheated version of an older setup which may or may not have worked the first time around.

This tendency to abolish and recreate organisations “as a proxy for demonstrating progress” hobbles the possibility of real progress across many policy areas, argues UK think tank the Institute for Government in a new reportAll change: why Britain is so prone to policy reinvention, and what can be done about it.

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But why are some areas subject to policy launch and relaunch while politicians fear to interfere in other policy realms, or are smacked down when they try?

Policy churn tends to strike when low media interest and weak stakeholders coincide, argues the Institute for Government.

Combine these factors with the need for ministers to demonstrate they are doing something, and competing ideas about what government should be trying to achieve in a sector, and you have a recipe for constant change.

Take, for example, the UK’s technical education system. Both ministers and journalists are unlikely to have undertaken vocational education, and may not have any friends in the industry, meaning those with power and influence mostly have low instinctive understanding or feeling for it — unlike the influential university sector.

You’d be hard pressed to find an area more heavily subject to policy churn. Since the early 1980s there have been 28 major pieces of relevant legislation, and responsibility has been shunted between six departments and 48 secretaries of state (ministers). No organisation has survived longer than a decade. The result is a mishmash of constantly changing rules. As some commentators have quipped of the resulting landscape of post-compulsory education and training provision: if you are not confused by it, then you have not understood it.

The institute points to industrial strategy and regional governance as similarly vexed issues in the UK, where ideological disagreement and a reluctance by politicians to decentralise their own powers respectively ensure regular shifts, some of which is a rehashing of previous regimes.

Boosting institutional strength

Many of the factors behind this churn are systemic, but the Institute for Government highlights four problems that can be addressed:

  • poor institutional memory;
  • the tendency to abolish and recreate organisations “as a proxy for demonstrating progress”;
  • a centre of government that remains too weak at long-term planning;
  • a policy development process that is not as resilient as it could be.

Personnel churn is a common problem across many parts of government, making it more likely the same ideas will keep cropping up without reference to what has or has not been tried before. Stability can make a significant difference to the success of policies and projects, allowing employees to build up knowledge and networks — yet changing tracks is often the best way to get ahead in the public service. Human resources systems should be flexible enough to reward stability.

Good information management systems will help remediate the staff churn problem, ensuring major reforms are proceeding on a full understanding of past and existing policies and organisations.

“Departments struggle to access past research to inform policymaking processes, resulting in waste and reinvention,” the report notes. “This must change — all policymakers should be able to access a repository of work already undertaken in their policy area, in order to inform their own recommendations.”

Requiring public servants to show their evidence base would help strengthen policy development and lessen the likelihood previous proposals lie undiscovered. To ensure that existing departmental expertise is being used, “departments should be required to acknowledge previous policy and organisational approaches in all new policy proposals — including white and green papers — explaining what lessons they have learned from previous reforms,” the institute argues.

Outsiders, including external experts and citizens, should also be involved in the policy development process. This strengthens the basis of the policy and generates a broad coalition for change that will increase the possibility of the policy enduring, even when political interest wanes.

And although it may irritate impatient ministers, making organisational change harder might help, too. The first step is clear accounting for the cost of machinery of government changes — already practiced in some Australian jurisdictions — to shed light on how much reorganisation really costs. Giving Treasury a chance to assess MOG change proposals forces ministers to properly consider whether its plan is value for money, or merely a fig leaf for progress — as would parliament requiring business cases to be produced for new statutory agencies.

Tackling these deficiencies — along with a healthy, and perhaps unlikely, dose of restraint from ministers — would go some way towards reducing policy churn.

The alternative is sticking with regular acknowledgements of the problem without doing much about it, a phenomenon witnessed by former David Cameron adviser Rachel Wolf at many dinners, seminars, report launches and stakeholder meetings:

“Someone experienced and sensible says: ‘And of course, the problem is, we never implement things for long enough. We keep changing policy all the time.’ Everyone will nod their heads and agree — and then immediately carry on advocating the change they want. It is the Westminster equivalent of Augustine’s plea: ‘Lord, grant me policy stability — but not yet!’”

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