What works? New approaches for impactful policymaking

In these joint seminars with The Royal Society of Arts (RSA), we asked whether CPI’s Public Impact Fundamentals, as well as RSA’s cultural theory, could provide a possible new consensus regarding the aims and processes of policymaking.

It was recognised that while frameworks like the Fundamentals can provide a useful means for structuring thinking they should never be applied dogmatically. Rather, they can help to identify strengths and weaknesses for a particular approach as well as highlighting avenues of enquiry that would otherwise be under-explored.

As RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor said, we should think of the Fundamentals as “a compass rather than a roadmap”. That being said, as Policy Lab director Andrea Siodmok pointed out, in the past, Whitehall policymakers have been expected to accumulate the skills required for their job through “a process of osmosis” over a large number of years. As Whitehall itself becomes more porous to outsiders, and the policymaking process is increasingly opened up, the benefit of having a shared framing and language is obvious.

The second theme picked up was the role of legitimacy, which is one of the Fundamentals alongside policy and action. There was broad agreement that legitimacy is an important contributing factor that can influence the chances of success, However, our current understanding of what influences legitimacy and how we might address what appears to be declining legitimacy is relatively weak. To this end, the Centre for Public Impact is undertaking a major research programme this year focused on developing a more robust understanding of legitimacy and strategies for improving it.

A third theme related to our level of ambition as policymakers. Barry Quirk, chief executive of Lewisham Council, pointed out that most new ideas fail, and indeed if you require four sequential changes to work, each with a 25% chance of success, the mathematical likelihood of all four working together is 0.3%. Given that we are often grappling with complex and dynamic systems in the public sector we should be more realistic about the impact we hope to achieve. As the Fundamentals suggest, this also requires the synthesis of three very different disciplines: the “art” of politics, the “science” of policy and the “mathematics” of management, to use Barry’s terminology.

Our second session with the RSA, which took place on March 1, we focused on how approaches like the Fundamentals can actually be applied. Matthew shared one example from the Employment Review he is currently leading where he has consciously included strategies to enhance the Review’s legitimacy through greater openness and by stimulating public discussion about the importance of fair working practices.