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Proposed reforms in government and policy making

July 4, 2012

Cover magazine article – July 2012

 

Maybe the world of lobbying government to influence policy making is about to be shaken up? In June the Government published their civil service reform plan. It applies across the service but will be particularly important for the insurance industry and its trade associations regarding its impact on central government and agencies. Although many have argued that they have not gone far enough, the reforms provide leverage for getting better engagement by feeding back to government how well we think they are doing. Also, if they are successful, there will be much better opportunities for proper consultation and shared decision making.

 

Current policy making process is parodied in the report as the “least collaborative approach”. I say parodied, but I have certainly experienced this approach both inside and outside government. Typically it involves – the overarching thrust of a policy being determined by the most senior people based on their status rather than the strength of their argument; policy making that crosses departmental boundaries being made by civil servants who have a kind of long term account manager role with other departments rather than based on teams with specific skills and knowledge for a particular policy area; when relations between departments break down they blame each other rather than engaging constructively to resolve things; data and evidence is jealously guarded, and certainly not open to outsiders; approaches to Ministers are subject to Civil Service screening (though sometimes this has turned out to be very wise!); policy changes are developed in isolation from the real world and turn out not to be implementable in practice; and finally, even when there is a consultation it suddenly all goes quiet and the civil servants move to traditional Green Paper, White Paper, and legislation mode in isolation from external influence except in the most ritualistic way.

 

The reforms propose moving to “open policy making”. In essence this will mean that there will be far more opportunities to co-design policies, have access to and share relevant evidence and remain in the loop right through the process – from initial concept, to fleshed out policy, to ministerial decision on direction of travel, to Green and White Papers and legislation and to implementation. Experts in implementation will also be welcome at all points of the cycle – not just at the end.

 

The big question is will any of this happen in practice? Here I am on the side of the critics. True the Cabinet Office is going to create a centrally-resourced match fund (they pay half and each successful department pays half) which will run for three years and be evaluated. This fund will be allocated to outsource particular pieces of policy making to think tanks, universities and private companies. There will also be a new Tsar in charge of the process.

 

However, the amount of money, £1+1 million for the whole of government, is tiny. Second, the Cabinet Office will act as a secretariat to the process and “support departments to evaluate the effectiveness of the approach and its value for money” – this will not encourage Departments to be innovative and match projects to their own client groups. Third the fund will be overseen by Ministers, and not all of them will want it to succeed. There are plenty of poisoned chalices in the policy world that could be handed out. In addition, they may simply reject the advice they get – there is plenty of precedent for this from internal reviews carried out by consultants. That said, it would be really nice to see an industry group taking on the challenge and using the concepts of open policy making – rather than replicating closed processes. Who’s up for simple protection products?

 

This article first appeared in Cover magazine. The author Richard Walsh may be reached on richard.walsh@samiconsulting.co.uk.

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