From the ridiculous to the sublime – the extremes of policy making

November 16, 2012 by
Filed under: Politics, Public policy 

Those of us who reside in policy wonk land generally look out on a world of ambiguity. Because society is complex and change often takes a long time, the evidence on whether a policy has worked or failed is usually ambiguous. This doesn’t make for great headlines or memorable examples; indeed, recently I heard someone having to stretch all the way back to the Dangerous Dogs Act or the Millennium Dome to find unambiguous examples of failure. But today we have a new policy disaster that will just keep on giving

Over the next twenty years in England, Wales and internationally the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners will be a favourite case study, bringing a moment of clarity and humour to otherwise opaque presentations on the do’s and dont’s of policy making.

I am not merely referring to the predictably miserable turnout; a PR disaster both because of the overall turnout below fifteen percent and all the juicy details such as the polling station where no-one voted, the totally empty ballot boxes and the fact that not a single PCC will have received first preferences from more than one in ten local people. There is also the calibre issue. There will be some good PCCs no doubt, but there are many others who are Party time servers or sound bite populists not successful enough to have become or remained MPs.

The quality of many of those elected, the ambiguity of their role, and the way that any Chief Constable with any nous will effectively marginalise or capture them, means the low standing achieved for PCCs by today’s election is very likely to be maintained. This will contribute to the policy receiving prominence again in a couple of years.

As Labour tries to square the circle of needing an offer to make at the next general election with the fact that there is no money, its strategists will desperately search for areas of unpopular Government spending. For this will enable the opposition to argue – on however flimsy the grounds – that they can fund new promises from their own cuts.

Remember Labour’s pledge card in 1997? Its commitments were made on exactly this basis, for example ‘we will reduce class sizes by abolishing the Assisted Places Scheme’ or ‘we will reduce hospital waiting times by cutting NHS bureaucracy’. In economic and policy terms it’s pretty tenuous, but as a form of communication very powerful. So, another prediction made with great confidence is that at the next election Labour will be promising more bobbies on the beat funded by abolishing…..well, you know.

In case readers think I luxuriate only in disaster, I offer you a contrast between this debacle and one of the most utterly brilliant bits of policy making and leadership I have ever come across; the fat-busting Republican Mayor of Oklahoma.

Spending no money, showing personal humility, humour and courage, cleverly developing an idea step by step to the point at which it becomes truly transformative, making change about people first and Government second, it is an utterly brilliant example.

Once again, flat footed, inflexible national Government gets it wrong while responsive, creative city leadership makes real stuff happen. No wonder Benjamin Barber’s new book is to be called ‘If Mayors Ruled the World’.




  • Ian Christie

    Couldn’t agree more.

    Ben Barber is right about mayors and cities as leaders. This is very apparent in environmental policy, climate strategy and energy systems. Worldwide, national governments have been middling to poor to disastrous in all these fields. But scores of cities and hundreds of local authorities and regional governments have shown real leadership and taken pioneering action. See the case studies on the ICLEI website on local sustainable development; the C40 network of cities for climate policy leadership; Arnold Schwarzenegger’s R20 network of Green regional governments; and the GreenClimateCities initiative launched at the Rio+20 event (at which coalitions of mayors and others denounced national governments’ inaction in harsh terms).

  • Sam Earle

    Exactly. But that’s a bloody expensive policy cock-up. Most frustrating is the sham-democracy… Clearly they didn’t want to take no for an answer, as summed up by Theresa May’s comments on PM that she didn’t like spoilt votes. What a swizz. And in the mean time, some policy that is v deeply important – viz renewables – is being carefully butchered by the Tories – and still not a squeak from PM. #Omnishambles

  • Richard Fletcher

    Three points
    1. Police should not be a politicized service just like our armed services. So will these new commissioners take instruction from local or central government.
    2. Will there be any way the police will be able to collaborate nationally on crime fighting initiatives when chief constables are answerable to local, possibly meddling commissioners who manage their budget.
    3. As many of the elected are as you point out, failed politicians, what training, resources or guidance are these commissioners likely to be provided with and how is it possible this office won’t expand into a large bureaucracy at huge public expense.

  • Robert Burns

    This election fiasco was entirely foreseeable.

    People don’t want MORE government, they want EFFECTIVE government.

    This only goes to show what would happen if regional devolution proposals were enacted.

    It also goes to show that ordinary people have lost faith in the idea that the democratic process can deliver effective governance.

    R.I.P. regionalism and the fragmentation of the national response to internationally based challenges – see my entry on ‘Aspects of a peaceful resolution’.

  • Robert Burns


  • Adrian Perry

    Like 4,000 others in South Yorkshire I spoiled my ballot – in my case, for the first time since I started voting in 1966 – explained why on my blog( The obsession with structures rather than good practice – shown by governments of both parties – is tiring, and finally I revolted. Alistair Campbell’s view that the electorate is somehow to blame brings to mind Brecht’s sarcastic comment after the 1953 Berlin uprisings – the electorate must work to regain the government’s confidence.

  • Zio Bastone

    @Adrian Perry

    Yes Brecht skewers political self obsession pretty effectively in Die 
    Lösung. And there’s plenty of it about except that what had been a game of 
    ideological survival in Brecht’s day has long since turned into brand 
    management and has emptied out democracy in the process: using focus groups to identify the most advantageous target market; developing promises that define the brand; positioning and maintaining the brand, and so on. So nowadays narcissism reveals itself in different ways: in blaming the handlers of focus groups, in blaming either your or the other side’s policy wonks and (of course) in blaming the communication strategists.

    How very quaint and old fashioned of Mr Campbell, the self styled non 
    politician and non journalist, to think about the electorate on his blog! It 
    makes him seem almost endearing.

    But well done people like you who decided to say no, to help reclaim a 
    freedom that has been lost.

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