Can government be made great again?

Politicians would doubtless argue otherwise, but there has been no shortage of challenges and failures swirling around London’s Westminster village in recent months. While much attention has – inevitably – been focused on Brexit, there has been a steady stream of announcements which, when seen together, form something of a worrying trend.

We saw 2017 kicking off with a warning from the British Red Cross of a “humanitarian crisis” playing out in the (overcrowded) corridors and wards of NHS hospitals, soon after the old year closed with a set of disappointing PISA scores, a failure to move families out of poverty, and lingering concerns over the nation’s failure to integrate socially and culturally – revelations which have put ministers on the back foot.

Or have they?

Antony Painter, for one, believes more must be done to shine a light on what lies behind these policies. As head of the Action and Research Centre at the RSA, he is certainly doing his part – his is a role which gives him full view over the ups and downs of the British government. It’s a perch that has helped him identify what he believes are some common factors behind these failures of policy.

“I think there is clearly a political dynamic that has been established in the UK whereby people feel a sense of disgruntlement,” he says “And they have big and conflicting goals that politicians and policymakers feel the need to have an answer to. So this results in many initiatives being announced, or big goals and big promises, and then you get a series of changes which are supposedly going to achieve these goals. But there has to be a process of dialogue – which is the nature of the Legitimacy fundamental identified by CPI. Unfortunately, the temptation in modern politics is to make grand claims, and I’m afraid that model is pretty much broken, at least in the UK.”

Lifting the hood of government

So what’s behind these failures? Is it down to voters not holding elected politicians to account? Or are the media to blame for not digging into these stories and analysing where they have gone wrong? Painter certainly believes that they have had a role in creating the highly polarised society we find ourselves in today.

“It’s often very easy to blame the media, as they are an important part of public discourse,” he admits. “What often happens is that the debate can become very polarised – what is seen by some as the ‘liberal elite’ of The Guardian wags its finger at The Daily Mail and vice versa. But it seems to me that a lot of these approaches are in the same vein, which is essentially to go for the click bait – the big and bold headline.”

Such a tactic, he believes, is detrimental to the quality of the policy debate, but it is not universal. “In some publications you get a fair and detailed analysis which is critical and takes a longer-term perspective,” he continues. “But the ‘popular’ media certainly seem to focus more on the polarisation, rather than challenge and analysis – because that is where the demand is, so you can understand why they make that decision. But at some point, someone in this cycle is going to need to break the dynamic and get into a different kind of conversation.”

Another issue, he contends, is the failure of the policymaking to incorporate evidence sufficiently into the process. Too often, ideology reigns supreme when, in reality, it would be far better to take the time to press pause and consider if a policy is having its intended effect. “There absolutely has to be a more sophisticated understanding of change,” he says. “There are ideological politicians and they are people who will engage with experts, but only those who justify their world view. They will then produce legislation and there will be funding streams, initiatives and so on. The problem is that the time when things are prototyped and tested and users engaged with is all very fleeting. Education is probably a prime example of this. There has been enormous change over a period of 20 years and, when using PISA as the benchmark, by government’s own measurement it has failed, as standards have not risen.”

Time to come together

Solving this conundrum is obviously far easier said than done, but Painter believes that important lessons can be garnered from how other countries pursue their policymaking goals.

“If we’re looking at education and at Singapore or Finland or another high-performing country, I suspect that they have an ability to create processes that steer people away from the ideological battle,” he says. “If you look at the UK, our political system generates adversarial conflict, which is replicated in the media and the wider societal discourse. I think other societies manage this better, and this gives breathing space for better policymaking. Where there have been successes, I suspect there has been a sense of togetherness between the policymakers, the frontline, and the people who receive the services.”

And is such a scenario likely to play out in the UK any time soon? Painter is cautious. “It could go either way,” he concludes. “This dynamic could accelerate. Take Brexit. There is a very divided discourse and it makes me think back to the Iraq War. The capability of political actors to make good decisions in this context is very constrained. But then you see a bit more local energy and there is a nascent way of policymaking that is starting to emerge in big cities such as Manchester.

“What is clear is that if we look at three different types of democracy – populist, representative and deliberative – we see that we are starting to creep away from representative and move towards populist. The question is whether or not we can quickly establish a more deliberative form of democracy and can we get some resonance for this among those not only working in politics but society as a whole. Time will tell!”