The daily manoeuvring we are already seeing ahead of next year’s General Election can seem rather pointless. What has really changed in the polls in the last two years? Aren’t we continuing to meander towards another hung Parliament with the only unanswered question - which is to be the biggest Party – being ultimately resolved by a few thousand votes in a short list of marginal seats? Probably: but more in hope than expectation I’ll offer a way for things to become more interesting.
General Elections tend to be fought on three primary terrains: values, competence and future. Arguments about record and specific policies matter less for themselves than the degree to which they symbolise and reinforce these themes.
Labour is ahead on values, its traditional strong point; the Party scores relatively well on measures such as ‘speaks up for ordinary people’. The Conservative response is a sometimes uneasy mixture of appeal to people’s grievances about immigrants and those on benefits plus a quieter insistence that the Party continues to care about social mobility and poverty. Labour has tried to neutralise the first set of issues by sounding tough on claimants and immigration while choosing issues such as the bedroom tax to assert a value choice between the two largest Parties. The Lib Dems’ favoured position is to share Labour’s critique of ‘uncaring’ Conservatives but also to claim to be free of the less popular baggage of the labour movement.
The Conservatives are ahead on competence. They will be disappointed that the economic pick-up does not yet seem to have turned this advantage into a deal-clincher with the electorate. Sooner or later the Tories will launch a huge attack on the ‘riskiness’ of a Miliband Government’. They will be hoping this has an effect as powerful as the 1991/2 attack on Neil Kinnock (they may even be tempted to update the famous ‘L’ plate poster).
Labour has being trying to improve its competence rating. Thus there have been pledges on spending and borrowing and steps to improve the quality of Labour’s front bench. One of the reasons Nick Clegg entered Government was to establish the Lib Dems as a serious Party of Government. So far this hasn’t worked out well in terms of popularity but I suspect Clegg and his team will be in a stronger position come election time, albeit having to deal with insistent questions about who their favoured post-election partner would be.
While on values or competence we are dealing with fairly predictable game plans, when it comes to ‘future’ we are still largely in the dark. The future pitch is not just, or even mainly, about promises or aspirations. To win ‘future’ a party has to predict tomorrow in a credible way which lodges the idea that only that party understands and is prepared for that future.
The lack of future narrative may partly betray the limited time horizons and ambitions of the parties but it is also a reflection of the tough period we have been living through. Until recently any attempt to mobilise a positive future vision would have been seen as irrelevant, complacent or both. But that is changing. ‘Future’ is now up for grabs, and unlike values and competence it is far from clear who will wrestle control.
Much though it interests me, it’s not my job as RSA CEO to speculate on political strategy or election outcomes. However, my analysis does offer an opportunity to wider civic society. Whilst there is little most of us can usefully do on values and competence other than reinforce various existing positions, when it comes to ‘future’ there is room for creativity, agenda-setting and new alliances.
To repeat, future is not just about aspirations. More interesting are scenarios; what do we think are the likely major trends that will shape the next ten years? And can we press the parties to start showing us they understand these trends, are prepared for them, and how they would seek to shape them? In short, which party seems to ‘get the future’ most convincingly.
For example, I have been writing quite a lot (here and here) about the trends making central Government less effective and blunting the tools of traditional policy making. Who has the best plan to deal with the decline of the centre? Population ageing is another key trend. We talk about the specifics of health and social care and universal benefits but what about the deeper demographic trend towards a society where there are many more older people, some more younger people and fewer in-between? What kind of society will and should this be? As long as a different hollowing out – of the middle of the labour market – continues tinkering with minimum wages and tax credits it is not likely to make any significant difference. Is this something we simply live with or is any party willing credibly to commit to restructure the labour market?
The widespread assumption a few decades ago that globalisation would lead to a homogenisation of domestic economic and social policy has been largely confounded. There are significant differences between countries and different routes to success and to ruin.
Let’s hope that, amidst the attacks and retail policy offers, the next few months also sees the emergence of something that resembles a debate about alternative strategies for Britain (assuming, that is, there still is a Britain). Even better would be if this was a debate (unlike 99% of party politics) where the parties might in some areas agree to differ and let voters make an informed choice from the futures on offer. If the RSA could play a part in hosting such a debate I’m sure we’d be up for it.
The think tank, ippr, has an unconditional place in my heart matched only by West Bromwich Albion and the RSA so I have been trying to work out why the Institute’s recent pamphlet ‘Many to many – how the relational state will transform public services’ didn’t grab me in the way its reports usually do.
The report (which follows two others in similar vein) is in essence an appeal to the centre left to abandon its centralist assumptions and adopt a set of ideas about devolved, joined up, empowering public services; ideas which have in truth been around for decades. The spur is not so much state failure – indeed, the report is at pains to list policies the state has successfully implemented – but that modern policy challenges – like managing chronic health conditions or reducing long term unemployment – are ‘complex’ requiring the state to use its power in different ways.
Thus the report seeks to adapt the social democratic political economy of the state. But what if the starting point for that political economy is wrong? Might that wrong starting point help to explain why ideas like the relational state are so often talked about on the left but so rarely amount to anything much when Labour runs central or local government?
The key issue concerns the location of power and definition of value. In the conventional social democratic model – implicit in this report – power resides in the state and value in the capacity of the state to achieve its political and policy objectives. The source and nature of these policy objectives is assumed to be relatively unproblematic, being seen as an expression of a Government’s democratic mandate and progressive purpose.
However, an alternative model sees power residing in society and the evidence of Government’s value lying not in its capacity to achieve its goals but in the degree to which it is able to to mobilise social power towards aims to which citizens explicitly aspire. A successful Government is not merely one that has implemented is objectives (indeed the relationship between policy implementation and social capacity may be inverse) but one which has increased the capacity of society to improve itself.
In my annual lecture, for example, I suggested ,firstly, that social power had three forms (the individualistic, solidaristic and hierarchical); secondly, that the most powerful societies, organisations and policies mobilised all three sources; and thirdly, that the UK is currently suffering from a deficit of solidaristic and hierarchical power. From this perspective the way the central state operates as a dysfunctional and mistrusted hierarchy is as likely to sap as enhance social power.
To look at a more specific dimension: levels of social trust and trust of institutions appears to be a better predictor of a nation’s future economic dynamism than levels of human capital (defined primarily in terms of education and skills). Yet the very way the state operates can undermine social trust. Bo Rothstein is not alone in arguing that welfare means-testing reduces trust by making state bureaucrats intrusive and often arbitrary judges of claimants, by encouraging claimants to game the system and also because claimants are seen to game by non-claimants. This is now a suppurating wound in the UK social body: we are simultaneously experiencing unprecedentedly high levels of sanctioning of benefit claimants and of public hostility to claimants.
In work on reintroducing the contributory principle to welfare, ippr has recognised this issue, but it also intrudes into public services. ‘Many to many’ explores how a more relational state might better encourage people to be active in managing their own health and social care needs but – as a carers’ representative pointed out at a recent RSA seminar – the needs testing of social care eligibility continues to provide an incentive for people to focus on their incapacity.
In a blog post I can only offer a highly truncated exposition of a bigger argument but to get to the core of it: if the goal is a state which has good relationships with citizens which in turn generates capacity for social progress there are several profound and inter-related problems:
The increasingly problematic idea of policy-driven change (as laid out in my last post).
The oppressive logic of bureaucratic working (identified by the ippr report but in rather technocratic terms)
The frequent lack of alignment between the interests of political decision makers (with their increasingly weak mandate) and the public good
There are no easy answers. Replacing a statist with a social political economy is only the starting point for a long iterative journey to an as yet only hazy reform agenda, an agenda which is likely in many ways to be more radical than anything currently on offer. My concern is that this report, like recent speeches from Ed Miliband and Jon Cruddas, doesn’t recognise the deep, endemic, structural failings of the modern state. Thus while the principles and reforms it proposes are largely sensible (albeit not that different from the aspirations espoused by Coalition ministers) the reasons they have proved so very hard to act upon is left largely unexamined.
This morning at an RSA seminar on demand management the inspirational chief executive of a genuinely reforming and innovative local authority shared her experience of spending sustained time looking at services from the point of view of citizens and front line workers. ‘We talk about troubled and chaotic families’ she said ‘but what about troubled and chaotic public services?’. It reminded me of something once said by Professor Stephen Coleman: ‘the problem of civic engagement is hard to reach groups, and there is no harder to reach group than politicians’.
The vehicle of state is not working; its engine unreliable, its steering awry. Most social democrats seem still to hope we can get away with replacing parts of the body work.
For those of us who think the Westminster and Whitehall model of public policy is fatally flawed, there was cause for hope in speeches last week by Ed Miliband and Jon Cruddas: Devolving power, opening up Government – especially its data – and building services around the preferences and needs of citizens were all important themes.
The problem is we have heard most of this before. A recent Institute for Government pamphlet surveys the mixed record of initiatives in an English system that remains among the most centralised in the developed world and concludes:
While all parties have been good at making commitments to devolve power, governments have found it hard to implement decentralising reforms in practice.
And here is a quote that would fit neatly into either Labour speech:
The effects of this redistribution of power will be felt throughout politics, with people in control of the things that matter to them, a country where the political system is open and trustworthy, and power redistributed from the political elite to the man and woman in the street
These are the words of David Cameron in 2009, promising as Prime Minister to create a ‘post bureaucratic state’.
Yet, when it comes to letting go of power, the Coalition has been another Government with a mixed to mediocre record. On the positive side of the ledger lie significant initiatives including City Deals and community budgets, on the negative side are the top down reforms and ceaseless micro management of major Whitehall service departments, as well as the decision to place the main burden of austerity on to the shoulders of local authorities. In addition there are half baked schemes including Police and Crime Commissioners and the Community Right to Bid which someone with a Machiavellian outlook might suspect were designed to give people-power a bad name.
I largely exempt from my scepticism the Open Policy Making team in the Cabinet Office. My enthusiasm however has less to do with what has yet been achieved – not much – than with its starting point. It is this analysis of the fundamental failings, not just of aspects of central Government, but a whole way of thinking about power and policy which is missing from the account of both Miliband and even the more thoughtful Cruddas.
To believe that next time could be different for Labour we need to hear points like these:
For many decades the overall record of central Government public policy has been atrocious
I am not here merely referring to the well-known cock-ups forensically analysed by Crewe and King in their excellent recent ‘Blunders of our Governments‘ (e.g. Child Support Agency, London Underground PPP, Poll Tax), nor even the failure of major outsourcing projects like NHS patient records or most of the Work Programme.
In the thirty years since Margaret Thatcher’s second term our health service and schools have been subject to almost continuous intensive reform. Imagine if across this time, hospitals, GPs and schools had received the same funding to spend as they deemed best but with some basic mechanisms to ensure community and citizen accountability. Imagine also that instead of all the legislation and regulation and ring fenced budgets, central Government had restricted its role to acting as a strategic resource providing information, good ideas and networks, and only intervening in extremis and then only to demand a local solution. Isn’t it pretty likely that the health and school system would have evolved – learning from success and failure – into something equal or better than what we now have? Then, finally, imagine that the many tens of billions of pounds that have been spent on centrally mandated re-organisation had been available to invest in front line services.
The forces making central Government policy inept are accelerating
Partly this is about politics and the media: parties getting weaker and more unrepresentative, news becoming 24 hour and increasingly shrill in its desperate attempt to grab public attention. But more fundamental is the complexity and pace of change of modern life.
It is an axiom of Open Policy Making that change outside large organisations is now often faster than change can take place inside such bureaucracies (leaving aside the whole problem about the demarcation of inside and outside). Government with its cumbersome processes of policy making, regulation and accountability is even slower to adapt than the major corporations that have for years been trying to discover the secret to ‘agile’ operation. The slow, sludgy, distorting feedback loops of traditional Government policy-making are a recipe for continual under-performance and occasional farce.
Rather than the problem for policy being mobilisation, the problem for mobilisation is policy
The tools of traditional policy makers are regulation and money. Confronted by growing evidence of failure and public disenchantment, Whitehall decision makers have sought to graft on elements of public engagement. There has been ‘voice’ in the form of consultation and various consumer rights and ‘choice` in the form of greater diversity of provision and some capacity for citizens themselves to decide who they want as a service provider. Not all of this has been superficial. For example, direct payments for social care is a genuinely radical shift, albeit hampered by falling budgets. But by taking a narrow consumerist angle on policy problems, some reforms have generated bad outcomes. Enhanced parental choice over school places has become a stronger driver of inequality.
Most new initiatives from those who consider themselves modernisers are an extension of voice and choice, like Miliband’s promise to strengthen the right of parents to demand intervention in weak schools (never mind that such a power already exists). But this misses the point.
Generally, the goals of public policy – a better educated, more law-abiding, healthier citizenry – by their very nature depend on public mobilisation. This is not just about individual behaviour change but also wider social consent to change, as well as civic engagement in designing and driving that change. Thus the question should not be ‘how do we mobilise citizens around the policy we have chosen?’ but ‘who are the citizens and groups who influence outcomes in any given area?’, ‘how might we engage and mobilise them behind a shared vision of progress?’ and ‘does that involve traditional central policy (with all is inherent failings) at all?’
The way to predict the future is to create it
Jon Cruddas offered five principles for Labour’s policy review: ‘1. Transformation 2. Prevention 3. Devolution, 4. Collaboration and cooperation, 5. Citizenship and contribution. But what about ‘design’?.
Observance of Chatham House rules requires me to protect the source of the following brilliant observations from an official currently seconded to the Cabinet Office.
‘Having never worked in Whitehall I spent a few weeks wondering around, going to meetings and watching people work. After a while I figured it out: Central government is basically a publishing house. It is full of people writing stuff, contracts, consultation papers, regulations. These things take ages to write. Because they are so long and complex they inevitably contain flaws that are only discovered when they are implemented.
‘Innovation for designers involves doing stuff and testing it on people, for policy makers it means writing stuff and selling it to people.
‘Policy makers and designers have a fundamentally different view of mistakes. Designers like mistakes because they provide useful information that can be used to adapt and improve the model. Policy makers hate mistakes because they are so hard to undo, so they tend to ignore or suppress information about failings.
Around the world social innovation labs and service designers are making incursions into Government, but their work still feels tenuous, a bolt-on to the creaking old system. A design-based approach to change needs to be seen as a radical democratising project deserving support from the top not just a clever bit of technique to be tolerated at the margins…….
There is little in this post that is incompatible with the themes of Labour’s recent speeches. Indeed, from a passing reference he makes to expanding the work of the Government Digital Service, it seems Cruddas knows an incoming Labour Government should try to preserve the best of what is going on in the Cabinet Office.
But Labour and the other parties must take heed of the failure of previous governance reform. Cruddas and Miliband argue eloquently that the reform they advocate reflects the best traditions of the centre left. But Cameron maintained the same thing from the right. Vague aspirations and a basket of unconnected policies will not do. We need the central pillars of old policy making to be dismantled for the simple reason that the only alternative is continued failure.
The real test will be this year’s party conferences and next year’s manifestos. In the run up to the election the Institute for Government’s prosaic observation should be put in neon lights above every party HQ:
‘Party leaders must also be careful not to allow their colleagues to develop strong positions on policy areas they hope to decentralise’
Postscript: This afternoon I met up with Susannah Walden who has been working on our Whole Person Recovery project. Maybe because it’s her last week here she was frank about the challenges of our ’people-powered’ approach and what we have had to learn from getting things wrong as well as right. The fact that user-driven, design based, experimental change is hard is another – perhaps the most important – reason we need to understand that existing policy methodologies are bust. Otherwise when things get tough we will be tempted to revert to the illusion of central control.
In the 1970s, so the story goes, when for the first time in its history the Association of University Teachers (now part of the University and College Union) took strike action, a committee of dons was established to agree a protest slogan. After several long and intense meetings a consensus was reached. On the appointed day taxi drivers, office workers and tourists thronging central London were called on to express their solidarity with the AUT’s stirring demand, printed on hundreds of placards and chanted as protestors in their gowns and mortar boards marched down Whitehall: ‘Rectify the Anomaly’.
I was reminded of this communication failure at a seminar yesterday on progressive responses to the rise of political populism in Europe. Among the various contradictory suggestions were that mainstream parties should get better at addressing the bread and butter issues that often most concern, and annoy, people and, conversely, that progressives should counter the nostalgic idealism of populism with their own mobilising visions, not of a lost past, but a better future.
Perhaps these ideas fit better together than first seems.
Currently political debate is dominated by a short list of almost entirely negative stories; on public service cuts, falling living standards, immigration and welfare. A few posts ago I asked whether the focus could have shifted by next May:
‘The odds are that the next election will be about blame and credit for the past and an unedifying retail sale of pledges for the future. Yet my sense of what the country needs and what voters may be ready to hear, is a message broader, braver, more engaging and uplifting. Something about the kind of country we want to be and the kind of choices our collective aspirations involve not just for Government but for us at citizens’.
As we emerge from long recession with an unbalanced and a patchy recovery and continue with public service austerity, political idealism may seem wholly misplaced. Certainly, what we don’t need is mere gassy rhetoric about the ‘great future of our great country and its great people’. Indeed polarising negativity and unrealistic promises are the twin banes of political debate. While rhetorically the latter may be the antidote to the former, together they are bound to obscure real political choices.
Which is why I was struck by a point made at the seminar by the writer on philosopher, Julian Baggini. Might it be that recession and austerity have instilled a greater realism among the public, a realism that would enable politicians to combine an optimistic story with candid acceptance that a better future can only come about through the combined efforts of Government and civic society?
Such a story interweaving realistic ambition and concrete challenge is surely what we want and need to hear not just as a piece of rhetoric (as it largely was with David Cameron’s Big Society) but as a political organising principle, a component of every major policy, indeed central to a different way of thinking about policy and political power?
If for example, any Party, was to feel inclined to reassert the now effectively abandoned pledge to abolish child poverty, it would surely have to rely not only, or even mainly, on new Government spending but instead on a society-wide mobilisation, by councils, public services as a whole, businesses, churches, charities, community groups and poor families themselves .
When things are going well politicians are tempted to offer to solve every problem themselves: whatever Tony Blair actually said, this is what New Labour was heard to be offering in 1997 and 2001. When things are going badly people may be too angry and hurt to accept a message which makes demands on them, which may be why, as the IFS’s Paul Johnson argues in this morning’s Times, there is a tacit agreement among the main parties to avoid admitting the scale of the fiscal choices ahead.
Perhaps the background of 2015 – a country that has survived the crisis but knows it faces many more challenges and is a long way from thriving – is propitious for a new type of message and a new model of change?
Back at the seminar, someone suggested a new take on the classic call and response chant:
‘What do we want?’
‘Pragmatic, progressive idealism!’
‘Ah yes’, said another contributor, ‘but don’t forget the second half’;
‘When do we want it?’
‘As soon as we agree that it’s practically feasible’.
Call it a tragic irony or, more prosaically, another example of human cognitive frailty, but while we nearly always notice fast occurring defeats and victories we rarely appreciate outcomes of equal or greater significance that take years to unfold. So, however long it has taken to acheive, it is well worth marking a seachange in the methodology of policy making.
For more than twenty-five years I have been advocating an approach from Government that demands more from the public while also treating citizens with greater respect. On Friday, while chairing a Cabinet Office conference on Open Policy Making it occurred to me this argument has reached a turning point; it is a matter now of how, not whether, it will be won.
My own journey began in the mid-nineties when a Research Fellow at Warwick University working on a Joseph Rowntree-funded project designed by David Blunkett (often ahead of the curve in his thinking). The project explored the degree to which public service interventions rely upon, and might potentially foster, civic effort. At a time when the idea of a ‘demographic time bomb’ was just coming to public prominence, my research looked at the mix of public sector, familial and voluntary effort involved in providing care to older people.
I came up with some pretty big figures for the contribution made beyond the state and reached the obvious conclusion that policy should seek to supplement and encourage that effort rather than ignoring it or crowding it out. But when I presented the paper at a departmental seminar I met a response that, over the years, I have come to expect: No one exactly disagreed but neither did any one seem terrible excited.
Partly, this is ideological. Those on the left traditionally haven’t really seen a problem with the state doing everything and are suspicious of the inequalities lurking in families and wider civil society. The right is sceptical that the state could ever do anything but suffocate civic effort and increase dependency. More generally, the indifference reflects a view that while it is obvious public service outcomes are a joint effort of the state and civil society, and while there may be many small interventions which might demonstrate this idea in practice, it is far less clear what it means for the kind of large scale policy debates that dominate national politics.
As Director of IPPR and a Number Ten policy advisor I kept banging on the same drum with more or less the same response. Tony Blair, for example, would politely but unenthusiastically listen to my rather vague thesis before turning his rapt attention to more thrusting colleagues as they made the sinuous case for quasi-markets, huge technological solutions and greater consumer choice. The case for reform might be made in terms of people power but public service users were seen as consumers not citizens.
My first RSA annual lecture, in similar vein, focussed on the idea of moving from a Government-centric to a more citizen-centric model of social change: How could new forms of politics and policy help us close gap between our collective aspirations and the trajectory on which current attitudes and behaviours place us?
Of course, I haven’t been the only voice; not the loudest and certainly not the most coherent. From ideas of public service co-design and co-production to the concept of the ‘relational state’ many others have made the case and promoted examples of different policies and forms of delivery.
When David Cameron first expounded the idea of the Big Society I saw an attempt to put the notion of a renewed relationship between state and citizens at the heart of a political project. I was a great enthusiast. But, as it turned out most of the big beasts of the Tory Party and Whitehall reacted to the Big Society with that same old polite disdain.
Yet in the idea of ‘open policy-making’ (OPM) I hope we have at last reached a tipping point beyond which a more ambitious model of citizen engagement gradually becomes the norm. To use the jargon, after thirty years of dominance it may at last be that the nostrums of New Public Managment are being superceded by those of OPM.
OPM is a broad term and suffers from being erroneously reduced to only one of its components; for example, opening up data to citizens or adopting a more design-based trial and error approach to policy development. But the core elements, it seems to me, are that Government can only be effective if it is able to mobilise the efforts of citizens as service users, carers and community members, that it should share problems and the analytical tools (especially data) it has to solve them, should prefer small incremental to large expensive solutions, be willing to experiment and be tolerant of failure and should listen hard to the views and experiences of service users as well as providing multiple channels for those to be expressed. To turn those principles into action there is a large and growing tool kit ranging from ethnographic research methods to design based decision-making and data visualisation.
At the conference last Friday, as well as a mix of senior civil servants and external practitioners from outfits such as NESTA, the Design Council and the Denmark’s MindLab, the impressive line-up of speakers included Cabinet Officer minister Francis Maude, Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Haywood and Chris Warmald who combines being Perm Sec at Education with leading the policy profession across Whitehall.
Amidst the enthusiasm there was recognition of the various pitfalls facing the advocates of OPM. These include tendencies to overstate the degree to which it departs from existing good practice or to fall into jargon and a technocratic worldview (all problems can be solved with the right data). But by far the biggest challenge remains the one I identified here – reconciling the scale of innovation in policy making with the unedifying and unreconstructed reality of political manoeuvring.
An example was provided by Francis Maude who contrasted the evidence-based and collaborative nature of OPM with his largely vain attempts every year to stop his ministerial colleagues unveiling headline-grabbing but often ill-prepared policy initiatives at Party conference. Equally, I have very little sense that Labour is aware of much of this work, let alone that the Opposition appreciates its potential to underpin a more progressive and popular model of government. One of the senior civil servants extolling the virtues of OPM told me that rational decision making on big issues has almost ground to a halt in Government as the Coalition ‘partners’ retreat to build up their supply of arms for the General Election battle. The small scale of most OPM at least means it will be less impacted by this abandonment of public interest considerations by our elected representatives.
Still, I am confident. However much I would like it say it was voices like mine that have wrought the shift of OPM from the left field margins to the edge of the mainstream, it is in fact bigger forces; changing public attitudes and expectations, new computing power, the ubiquity of social media, and the inevitability of continuing constraints on public expenditure.
Open policy-making is the future. Politics will simply have to catch up. I wonder who will get the credit when it does.