Can policy save politics?

January 10, 2014 by
Filed under: Politics, Public policy 

Although often elided the respective domains of ‘policy’ and ‘politics’ are animated by different imperatives and cultures. The former aims for solutions, prizing objectivity and technical know-how: the latter aims for power and values strategic guile. Different kinds of people (or people at different stages of their lives) tend to be attracted to policy and politics and members of each tribe tend to view the other with an enervating mixture of contempt, suspicion and envy.

The worlds of policy and politics have travelled along in parallel lines influencing each other, each being influenced by the wider social, economic and technological changes and with ideas and people jumping from one track to the other. But now a historic divergence may be occurring.

The policy world is buzzing with new methodologies. Changing public attitudes, social media and big data are among the drivers. Key ideas include ‘open policy making’ (the subject of a major Cabinet Office event which I am chairing next week), policy making as design and the greater use of experimental methods such as randomised control trials and prototyping.

Driving the search for innovation is a loss of faith in the traditional system of policy undertaken in secret (with tokenistic and shallow forms of public consultation), compromising objectivity to short-termism and political or bureaucratic self-interest and culminating in huge, often departmentally bounded, make or break projects and reforms. The new generation of policy wonks aim to be more open not just about the solutions being proposed but also about the problems being faced, to share the tools available to solve those problems (particularly data) and to be willing to develop, design and test solutions in and with the public.

As the policy world boldly seeks to go where no policy maker has gone before, mainstream politics drifts deeper into the doldrums of public disdain. Statistics on public trust of politicians, membership of political parties and electoral turnout all tell the same story. The rise of nationalism in Europe, the advance of UKIP and the fascination with the ramblings of Russell Brand are all further symptoms of disillusionment with the political establishment. Any attempt by politicians to claim to be pursuing the national interest is accompanied by a media narrative of infighting, horse-trading and opportunism. As my colleague Adam Lent said in a recent blog post

Politics is hated because it is a hateful profession. That doesn’t make it unusual – most professions are characterised by petty politicking, tedious tribalism, gossip and self-interest. The difference with politics is that, unlike other professions, all those frailties get constantly and very publicly dressed up, by politicians themselves, as humble public service. Such in your face hypocrisy is rarely good for anyone’s credibility 

What happens when the aspiration for better policy making is sabotaged by political habit? A former Number Ten colleague who had helped develop and popularise the phrase ‘joined up Government’ told me the following story: Soon after the General Election in 1997 he was asked to speak to a regular gathering of senior civil servants. They were terribly enthusiastic, expressing whole hearted commitment to making Government more collaborative and seamless. By the following year doubt was starting to set in; how could civil servants join up when cabinet members didn’t, how could co-ordination improve when ministers made populist announcements in response to newspaper headlines. “By year three’, he said, “simply to utter the phrase ‘joined up government’ was to invite riducule’.

The criteria of cutting edge policy development – openness, objectivity, collaboration and experimentation – are being championed by various parts of the Cabinet Office (not itself always the most functional department), meanwhile the way policy making proceeds in, say, DWP, MoJ or the Department for Education not only often fails these tests but appears to do so proudly. Such a contrast is a recipe for the kind of cynicism which quickly followed in the wake of New Labour’s promise to modernise Government.

In the face of change and public disenchantment there have been attempts to reform politics. From the Conservatives open primaries to select candidates and its social action Programme through which parliamentary candidates developed local community projects. From Labour the attempt by former General Secretary Peter Watt to allow members to engage with each other more freely on-line, or various flirtations with community organising as a new form of local activism. But the most notable aspect of all these initiatives is how they have remained marginal or been co-opted to narrower electoral purposes.

And if reforming the way Parties work seems tough it is as nothing to changing the culture of political decision making among senior politicians in Whitehall or the Opposition. The ridiculous number of departmental ministers, the very idea of Government policy being overseen by a committee of nearly thirty people, the almost non-existent day to day collaboration between people with different departmental portfolios, the obsession with Party activists and national political journalists (even they are themselves increasingly isolated from the public) are symbols of a creaking system which would not be tolerated in a medium sized jam factory but is apparently acceptable as the way we run our country.

Politics has to change. The question is whether the system can change itself or we will have to endure a dangerous paroxysm of populist revolt. New forms of policy making may initially make business-as-usual politics look even more tawdry, but if they deliver on even some of their promise it might it help shame and inspire the political class to begin the long process of imagining ways of working which both are, and are seen to be, in the public interest.



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  • Tom Levitt

    Matthew’s experience so tallies with my own! After 13 years in parliament I stepped down – with so much sympathy for Tony Benn’s view of ‘leaving parliament to spend more time with my politics’. Total Place was another attempt to de-silo government but it was far too late and so half-hearted. It is only now, three years on, that I have the time, energy and insight to get my ideas together, three qualities that MPs generally do not have available – especially in marginal seats like mine was, where anything that might affect the swing makes a difference and had to be defended (or attacked, according to whose idea it was). The comment about Peter Watt is absolutely pertinent: Labour was never allowed to be a community party (we derided the Liberals’ ‘pavement politics’) and today Labour’s heartlands remain those areas with least capacity for self determination and the greatest need for a new way of making, communicating and delivering policies that matter.

  • Paul Cairney

    Many of the problems identified result from the limitations to any policymaking system. They do not result simply from the pathologies of particular political systems.

  • Oliver

    It may be instructive to think of it as the ‘Bigfoot Theory’ of politics. As ridiculous as it may sound, there is nothing intrinsically silly or far-fetched about the idea of Bigfoot, an undiscovered type of bipedal primate dwelling in the vast, dense woodlands in the Pacific North West. There was a period in human history when more than one hominid walked the earth; Native Canadian Indians have numerous legends of such a creature, along with over 200 different words for Sasquatch. We also have the fossil remains of Gigantopithecus, a 10 ft tall, 600 KG ape that existed 9 million years ago in Asia, and certain primatologists will argue that along with a great many species that migrated across the Berring Straight, it is not unreasonable to speculate that Gigantopithecus may also have settled in North America.

    The point is not to dwell on the possible existence of Bigfoot, and those of us who are not experienced primatologists will barely have a tourist’s knowledge of the subject. But what we can say is that Jane Goodall entertains the possibility, and once somebody at her level makes such a pronouncement the rest of us have no choice but to stop sniggering, sit up, take notice, and accept that it is indeed possible to make an intellectually robust case for something obsessed over by a tiny segment of the population.

    This is not the problem with Bigfoot. The problem is with the attitudes, belief systems and patterns of thinking embedded in the personalities of most of the people who do believe in Bigfoot. They also tend to have had seven alien abductions, four near death experiences, seen two ghosts, use healing crystals when they get sick, believe 9/11 was an inside job and argue the Government uses geo-engineering technologies to poison the population with chem-trails from military aircraft. By some strange, cosmic coincidence, all these strands of thinking from various countercultural pursuits seem to share largely the exact same audience. Because that’s what it takes to be part of the team.

    And so it is with another fringe pursuit obsessed over by a different, tiny segment of the population; politics. In a similar fashion, one can reasonably articulate a case against huge disparities of wealth & income as being corrosive of society, and do so in a robust, evidence based manner. But too many of its adherents will also betray an economically inept understanding of the public finances, believe postmen & nurses should subsidise the university education of the children of lawyers and bankers, and furiously refute the plausibility of combining some measure of social insurance with the public option to craft a more efficient system of health care.

    This is not a strike against those of a leftist inclination; the above arithmetic can be just as revealing when applied to conservative thinking. The point is, there are simply too many articles of faith one is expected to sign on to in order to be part of the club, as far too many policy positions bear a transient, or worse, completely arbitrary relationship to the political turf or supposed value systems they are assigned to. These assumptions go largely unchallenged as there is, and always will be, an archetypal individual who feels the gravitational pull towards politics and will unflinchingly take on almost every article of faith required in order to be part of the tribe. The policy positions they fight for become rationalisatons for the deeper sense of anger that launched their quest, but now they have something to be angry about. These urges are almost primal, and will win out over considered policy arguments the majority of the time in much the same way that over the past 50 years almost every sport has seen the triumph of raw athleticism over skills and technique.

    Policy can win, yes. But it takes a Roger Federer, Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretsky to come along one every generation and raise the level of technique (or policy) to the point when fellow craftsmen they compete against are made to look like amateurs. Otherwise, at the elite level of any sport, everything *always* boils down to a game of speed. Once everybody knows the same tricks, once everybody is equally well versed in technique, unfortunately it becomes a case of, who can ‘out-athlete’ the other athlete. And that’s politics.

    Or maybe Bigfoot really is a load of b******s. Who knows.

    Happy New Year.


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