The tapestry of modern policymaking is woven through with challenges in abundance. That’s no secret. And this is the case even without – in the UK’s case – the looming iceberg of the Brexit negotiations and the forthcoming snap general election.
This backdrop is what compelled the Centre for Public Impact and the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) to come together to explore how policymaking can achieve what politicians of any stripe strive for: a positive public impact. Our new report, Policy with Impact, is now available.
A focus on the process
Our collaboration involved the joint convening of two seminars to consider the various options. It soon became clear that any examination had to involve an examination of the actual process of policymaking. This is because government and democratic politics more broadly is currently experiencing a ‘crisis of legitimacy’. Not only is public confidence in politicians low, the divisions exposed by last year’s EU referendum remain all too raw.
Public policymaking failure is both a cause and effect of this crisis. Regular policy failure and accompanying media coverage contribute to a perception of government inadequacy. This, in turn, makes successful policymaking harder to achieve. This is because it is unlikely that a policy will be given the necessary support by the public and other critical stakeholders to enable it to achieve public impact; and even when a policy has met its objectives, it is not easily heard in an environment dominated by larger reinforcing messages which lead to wider political disaffection.
But it’s not all bad news. New data and digital capabilities – not to mention the impending AI revolution – have provided us with better mechanisms to listen to citizens, gather valuable information and deliver strong messaging. And, more broadly, the now-evident ‘crisis of legitimacy’ has produced an appetite for change: business as usual will no longer suffice.
Towards a fresh consensus?
It is important to remember that government is never still. For example, policy labs have sprung up in administrations around the world, and new approaches such as behavioural economics are fast gaining traction. Unfortunately, these innovations – while important – have yet to be brought together in a manner that represents a systematic new framework approach to policymaking.
At the CPI, we have sought to help move this impasse forward by publishing the Public Impact Fundamentals, which identifies legitimacy, policy and action as fundamental to achieving public impact. The RSA, too, is developing and applying a model of change entitled ‘thinking like a system, and acting like an entrepreneur’. It is a framework through which to approach a particular challenge or priority and a method of achieving a common understanding of the issue and the actions that can be taken to address it.
These frameworks underline why wholesale change in the way that policymakers think about their work and operate is necessary. Policymakers need to conceptualise their work as more than just producing well-designed policy, but consider it more holistically and system-wide. Bridging the divide between policy design and implementation will help policymakers think systemically and act entrepreneurially. This, in turn, necessitates a different approach to failure. New interventions may not initially or even ever succeed, but learning from those failures is crucial.
This won’t be easy. Ingrained thinking, bureaucratic structures and fierce media scrutiny are just some of the factors which work against experimental thinking and the deployment of new techniques. And that’s not even considering the reality that policymaking takes place in a partisan political arena. Voices are more often raised in opposition than collaboration, and the timescales for pushing out policy are far shorter than what is needed to gather proper evidence or conduct system analysis. Such issues remind us of the limits of change we can hope to achieve, as well as the need for reform of both policy and politics.
Building for the future
Looking ahead, there is no doubt that creating new policymaking processes will hardly be straightforward. But while challenges proliferate so, too, do reminders of why this is so important. Policy successes and better impact translate into better schools, better health care and much, much more.
This is why when resistance to change occurs – as it inevitably will – we should not step back. The holistic vision we are advocating will not come easy, but it is our hope that the collaboration between the CPI and RSA will help bring it closer to reality.
- Helping governments bridge the gap between intentions and performance. The ideal of good government is one shared by billions of people around the world but more needs to be done for it to become a reality, says Adrian Brown
- Recognising and renewing governments’ legitimacy. Preserving their legitimacy in such a fast- changing world should be a priority for governments the world over, says Maryantonett Flumian
- Action stations: advancing to impact. Beth Blauer explains why management, measurement and alignment are critical to the successful transition of a policy into real-world effect
- Picking the policy that will have the greatest impact. Overcoming the barriers to policy implementation involves not only the setting of priorities and ambition but also defining what outcome is actually intended, says Sir Michael Barber