The builder of policy bridges

It’s fair to say that Dr Katherine Rake has worn a fair few hats in her time. Not for her the limitations of a one-job career – a glance through her cv reveals an assortment of roles across central government, the third sector and academia.

What connects these different positions is her determination to hunt down solutions to diverse social issues, and her realisation that much more needs to be done to bridge the divides between the various departments, organisations and cultures that operate across the body politic.

“One of the things that I have witnessed throughout my career is the disconnect between these worlds, their distinct cultures and different world views,” she reflects. “I am also struck by the fact that the people who lose out in the end are those who use these services. The government also loses impact because of this disjointed way of working. Translation between different sectors is often the missing link in policymaking.”

She saw the impact of this disconnect for herself while heading up Healthwatch England – which was launched to champion the needs and experiences of people who use health and social care. “In England, health and social care are two separate systems – and there is a lot of poor experience when people need both services and end up being ping-ponged between two systems which never quite coordinate,” she admits.

Building bridges

There are few sectors untouched by Rake’s presence at one time or another. She has served as chief executive of the Fawcett Society and Family and Parenting Institute and as lecturer in social policy at the LSE, in addition to her time at Healthwatch. And she has also been active across different government departments – working in the Cabinet Office and advising the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit, HM Treasury and a number of other departments.

This body of experience means that when she says that silos remain prevalent, people should sit up and listen. But although such divides are hardly limited to the UK – governments worldwide suffer from similar challenges – Rake says that tackling them is not a mission impossible. “There is something to be said for actively encouraging policymakers to spend time in these different worlds,” she says. “Throughout my career when I have been outside government, the experiences I have had inside government have taught me an awful lot – and vice versa. There is nothing like doing it and seeing the pressures for yourself.”

She goes on to say that many institutions are rooted in a bygone era and no longer reflect today’s world. “Institutions were created to respond to a particular set of needs – in the UK these were the needs of a postwar generation. Clearly, life has moved on very substantially since then and yet the institutional boundaries remain the same. The boundaries that worked then makes less and less sense in the face of changing demographics and a shift in what people need from government,” she points out. “The problem is that if you continue to allow silos to exist, there is a significant risk of people falling between the gaps.”

This means that the machinery of government needs to build bridges, be bonded by a common purpose, and allow for the pooling of budgets. “An effective policy may require spending in one department but with the benefit being felt by another,” she says. “Simple mechanisms like pooling funding and making sure people are clear about their common purpose are the obvious places to start.”

That said, breaking down silos is easier said than done. She agrees with the suggestion that governments are good at starting new programmes and projects but less good at addressing legacy systems – often the cause of spiralling costs and the emergence of new silos. “The problem is that once an institution is set up, it creates its own sense of interests and can become self-perpetuating,” she reflects. “People are better at setting things up than closing them down. It is hard to start with a fresh sheet of paper, because there are people’s jobs and expertise at stake. Policymakers ask ‘what should be delivered?’ but they do not spend enough time considering the ‘who’ and the ‘how’ of policy delivery. I think this is where they lose impact and miss the opportunity to create joined-up policy.”

Idea to impact

Rake is currently focusing on her new role as chief executive of Totalpolicy. It’s an organisation she founded to help policymakers, funders and charities work together more effectively. “The boundary between charities and the public sector is a really interesting place,” she says. “There is a huge amount more social impact or value that could be derived from that relationship, but unfortunately neither party quite knows how to work with the other – which is where we can assist.”

One of the areas she is focusing on is ensuring that an organisation tailors its approach when seeking to make a difference – there is no single catch-all approach to impact. “Different organisations and sectors trade in different currencies,” she points out. “Although there are some common links, such as value for money. What gets you traction in education is different to what gets you traction in criminal justice, for example.”

She goes on to say that, unfortunately, the ability to move across these boundaries is relatively rare. “This is because, often for the best of reasons, people get very engaged in a particular issue and want to make a difference in that area, so their exposure to other ways of thinking can be relatively limited,” she explains. “And having worked in central government, there is also the extraordinary pressure of the day job. This means there is very limited time and head space for connecting with practice that is happening elsewhere in central government, let alone in local government, the charity sector or internationally.”

There is also the need to recognise that many problems simply won’t be solved overnight – in particular, “wicked problems” that have no single root cause or solution. “Part of the solution is slowing the policymaking process down and recognising the answer is not going to materialise within a standard political cycle,” she says. “The relentless pressure for delivery on outcomes means that fresh solutions sometimes are not given sufficient time to mature in a way that makes a difference.”

“There are ‘organisational antibodies’ to change,” she says. “Just like when you get a splinter under the skin and your body acts to repel it, there is often that kind of response to change in organisations. So you need to ensure that people understand the case for change and the long-term benefits. Although specialism and continuity are important, it is about making sure that the antibodies don’t get in the way of positive innovation.”

It’s this type of issue which persuaded Rake to move on after three years at Healthwatch England and set up Totalpolicy. While it is still early days, few would bet against her leaving a trail of positive impact in her wake. Bridges – not silos – are on the way…



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