The RSA headquarters just off Trafalgar Square is a good place to find Matthew Taylor. The heart of London. A short stroll from the West End and Westminster. A bustling hub of activity which reflects his own personal approach and drive.
Taylor has been a leading doyen of the UK’s policy environment for many years – his former roles include serving as Tony Blair’s policy chief in 10 Downing Street and heading up the IPPR think tank. Now, though, he serves as chief executive of the RSA – the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce – and is an active commentator, influencer, advisor on matters affecting the body politic. A current project of note is leading a high-profile review on modern employment for the Conservative government (not for him the partisan point scoring beloved of many others – Taylor is widely respected across the political spectrum).
As part of his investigation into how employment practices need to change in order to keep pace with modern business models – think Uber and Deliveroo – Taylor has been using the Public Impact Fundamentals to help him think through the issues at hand. “I think people found the CPI’s Fundamentals to be really interesting and engaging,” he says. “It’s not a framework which is seen as a kind of checklist for tick all the boxes and everything is going to be fine. I see it as more compass than roadmap.”
Lasering in on legitimacy
Taylor cites the legitimacy element of the Fundamentals to be of strong pertinence to not only his review, but also the current political arena. “Of the three components of the framework, there is a particular focus on legitimacy,” he says. “This is because we have a big problem of legitimacy in the modern world. We see this to a certain extent reflected with the wider populism and there all sorts of statistics about declining trust and things like that which make legitimacy a hard problem to solve.”
He goes on to say that the framework’s spotlight on legitimacy has highlighted the fact that there is currently dearth of knowledge about how exactly politicians and policymakers can go about generating it. “Because the CPI framework gets us to think about legitimacy, we really are quite in the dark about it,” he points out. “We have a lot of tools which we might use to determine whether a policy is well-designed, and we’ve even got quite a few tools to help us understand what incentivises people to behave – although I’m not sure we know enough about that – but legitimacy is an area in which are lacking.”
The RSA and Centre for Public Impact have recently teamed up to host two joint seminars on whether the CPI’s Fundamentals, as well as RSA’s cultural theory – think like a system, act like an entrepreneur – could provide a possible new consensus regarding the aims and processes of policymaking. “At our events there were lots of interesting examples of successes but also failures of accountability about how to generate legitimacy if that is such an important component,” says Taylor. “So I thought it was a fascinating conversation and not an uncritical one.”
Thinking through the next steps
Taylor is absolutely correct to view the Fundamentals as a roadmap, rather than checklist. This is because one of the challenges about producing frameworks is striking the balance between being wide enough that people can have meaning for them, but at the same time having enough substance so it can be practically applied.
Policy practitioners might deploy the Fundamentals for self-assessments, forward planning or progress tracking. Taylor, for example, says the framework has helped him think more holistically about his employment review. “What we will recommend is premised on the idea that we should care about the quality of work,” he says.
“But it isn’t clear to me that the legitimacy issue has been won there. So I am thinking in my review – partly through this framework – about the type of work I need to do before the review is published to demonstrate that people care about the quality of work. Because if they don’t care about the quality of work, why would the government go through the difficulty of implementing policies and getting incentives right for the changes that I want to recommend?”
Taylor is expected to complete his review later this year. Although much work has already been completed, there remains more to do. “There is a tendency for policymakers to think they have got to have a solution,” he admits. “But what this framework does is suggest that maybe a solution isn’t available right now and all that is available is building a legitimacy ramp to take you to a point where a solution might become visible.”
He is also aware that in politics you should expect the unexpected – as recent events both in the UK with Brexit and the presidential election in the US have proven. This means that as his review winds its way towards completion, there is likely to be further fluctuations around the corner, – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, he believes.
“What you see in government is a fixed time frame for things – particularly when it comes to parliamentary terms,” he points out. “Sometimes you have to go a lot slower than you might want to go, but other times you might be able to go much faster. Take the smoking ban in the UK, for example. Here, the evidence about passive smoking fundamentally shifted the argument. But policymakers don’t always that these opportunities open up and that legitimacy has shifted – so this framework also helps policymakers stay on their toes.”
We have always hoped that the Fundamentals will act as a compass for public impact, helping governments improve the lives of their citizens. Taylor’s review aims to do just that – it will be fascinating to see what he comes up with.
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