The strengths and pitfalls of partnership government

April 14, 2011 by
Filed under: Politics, The RSA 

I had an interesting meeting with an advisor at Number Ten yesterday. We discussed some topics which I think the RSA could pick up in its research and events programme, but I was also fascinated by the way Downing Street thinks about change.

Apparently a new unit of around a dozen people has been established with what might seem a surprising combination of skills. On the one hand, it contains young policy wonks, people with skills in research, analysis and presentation. They are tasked with the quick turn round of scoping papers – including action points – on a topic which has moved toward the top of the PM’s priorities. On the other hand, the team also comprises advisors whose job is to liaise with organisations outside Government in terms not only of their specialist insight but also the role they might play in contributing to a change strategy.

In a number of policy areas – for example, public health, information transparency and new forms of procurement – the Government hasn’t sought merely to consult or regulate corporates or charities but to engage them as partners in policy development and delivery.

This is neither entirely new nor is it without its critics. All Governments try to persuade companies and third sector groups to help them deliver their objectives and provide legitimacy for their policies. But I sense a more profound shift in the mode of governance. A core idea of the Big Society is that the state is there to facilitate, not to dominate, the pursuit of policy goals. Public spending austerity means there is little or no money for ministers simply to mandate change programmes themselves; instead they need to focus on interventions which can catalyse change from other social actors.

On the whole, I support this way of thinking. Policy is seen as something which is done with society rather than to it. To be credible this means more open policy making, including being explicit about the expectations being placed on partners, and more subtle ways of thinking about state intervention. Imagine if instead of announcing out of the blue that the Government was going to abolish child poverty, Tony Blair has instigated a six month national conversation about how the whole country could sign up to, and help deliver, this goal. Not only might the goal have been further progressed and have become more embedded in the national psyche, but more of us would feel proud of the substantial progress which was made.

But three major dangers of a partnership model of policy development and implementation also stand out: 

–          As rows over inviting food and alcohol companies to shape public health strategy show, ministers must beware looking as though they have simply turned over policy making to outside interests, especially commercial ones.  All organisations – private or third sector – have their own agendas, and behind what may be a perfectly sincere commitment to public good and corporate responsibility there will always be a harder edged calculation of self-interest.  There is a role here for the public. As customers, we should encourage corporations to be good civic citizens and show our displeasure when their arguments become transparently self-serving.   

–          For all their failings, traditional Government policy levers such as major spending programmes and national regulation will have society-wide effects. In contrast corporate and third sector initiatives will tend to be much more limited and fragile in their impact. I wrote last week about the dangers of policy by anecdote. Pursuing change through commercial or charitable initiatives runs the danger of celebrating pockets of good practice while ignoring a general trend of deterioration.    

–          In my own experience it is not easy for people outside Government and politics to fully understand the challenges of policy making. Ministers have to contend with competing spending and policy priorities, Whitehall battles, media pressure, party and public expectations. Not only is a lot of external advice to Government self-interested, it is often half-baked and naïve.   

Partners can also be fickle. It is relatively easy for new Governments with fresh ideas and leaders to garner engagement and support from third parties. But as the Coalition becomes more and more unpopular – and I meet few ministers who don’t see it as inevitable that it will – even the impressively innovative and positive team at Number Ten will learn to distinguish real chnage partners from fair weather friends.



  • Ben Bennetts

    Matthew, can you expand (or at least point me somewhere) on your mention of ‘information transparency’? It may be completely unrelated, but I’ve been having an interesting exchange with one or two other Fellows about re-use of information –

  • Matthew Kalman

    Hi Matthew,

    The shift you highlight – towards open policy making and a facilitative state – reminds me of the three eras that Charles Leadbeater talks about in the public’s expectations of public services, culminating in the emerging ‘I can’ era of enabled citizens.

    Leadbeater talks about a shift from:

    • ‘I need’ (eg postwar needs for housing, benefits, healthcare; 1950s-60s)

    • ‘I want’ (eg expensive medication or specialist schools; mid-60s, 70s, 80s)

    • ‘I can’ (where citizens increasingly shape services for themselves; ie the era we’re entering now).

    Public services struggle to catch up with these shifts in public expectations:

    “Governments are struggling to move public services built in an age of ‘needs’ to one more suited to an age of ‘wants’, just as the population itself begins to move into an age of ‘cans'”, is how David Halpern describes Leadbeater’s view in ‘The Hidden Wealth of Nations’.

    Leadbeater, of course, sees the ‘I can’ era as having the greatest potential: “Can you see the people you currently regard as the consumers of public services and can you shift them from being passive, complaining or demanding, into participative and contributory and sharing risk? If you can – and you can’t always do that – and you can turn users into contributors, it has dramatic effects on productivity, loyalty and the overall performance of the system.”

    What intrigues me is how we can track these change in the UK population’s values – as clearly everyone didn’t leave the ‘I need’ era in 1965 and enter the ‘I want’ era en masse etc.

    I rather suspect that the way we can track how much of the population is in ‘I need’ vs ‘I want’ vs ‘I can’ is by using Cultural Dynamics’ ‘Values Modes’.

    It looks fairly clear to me that ‘I need’ relates to the Maslow macro-segment called ‘Sustenance Driven’, that ‘I want’ relates to the ‘Outer Directed’ macro-segment and ‘I can’ relates to the ‘Inner Directed’ segment.

    Sure enough, Sustenance Driven was once predominant in the UK, but is now waning, Outer Directed then took off, but by now – if I remember correctly – Inner Directed has just managed to become the largest of the 3 macro-segments – exactly as Leadbeater might suggest.

    However, if we start ramming Inner Directed ‘I can’ solutions on to the Sustenance Driven ‘I need’ and Outer Directed ‘I want’ millions then we will probably •really* antagonise them, and fail to get very far.

    This is the ‘culture gap’ that The Campaign Company talk about in their Big Society report for the Leadership Centre for Local Government, which doesn’t quite seem to have been published yet.

    Local authority leaders and communicators – along with Charles Leadbeater, the RSA, and even me – will tend to be Inner Directed (‘I can’) people.

    Compared to their communities these people are:

    • More optimistic about their area
    • More positive about change
    • Less worried about crime and safety
    • More concerned by the ‘big picture’ than by small details
    • More interested in global issues: the environment, climate change, international politics

    These leaders also instinctively want to ‘celebrate change’ – exactly what large parts of their community •don’t• want to hear! (And Sustenance Driven ‘I Need’ communities are already the least efficacious – even before the latest Inner Directed ‘I can’ project, that risks just alienating them even more).

    Perhaps you could get Charles Leadbeater, Nick Pecorelli, Pat Dade and co to talk about this at the RSA some time? I think we need more of this nuanced take on making the Big Society a reality.

    (Plus I like the initial work Pecorelli has done showing how the Government’s MINDSPACE behaviour change approach needs to be less static and one-size-fits-all, and take into account these Maslowian developmental diversity differences, if it is to succeed in changing behaviour).

    Matthew Kalman

  • Peter Bradwell

    This diagnosis certainly seems to chime with the Ed Vaizey’s approach to discussions about a self-regulatory ‘website blocking’ scheme for sites suspected of infringing copyright. Here the Government has taken a pretty explicit ‘facilitator’ stance, hosting discussions between Internet Service Providers and copyright holders.

    But whatever one’s position on this (and at Open RIghts Group we’re explicitly opposed to the idea of self-regulatory blocking) the problems you identify are clear: taking the policy demands of certain stakeholders at face value (the level of ‘need’ for some policy or such), and the failure to cast the partnership net wide enough, or early enough, to include competing and legitimate perspectives and values.

    Regarding website blocking, the government has asked Ofcom to look at the technical feasibility of blocking, and Ed Vaizey has promised us he will include consumer groups in future discussions. So on the one hand, you might be optimistic about how the facilitation is working. However, when meetings about such things continue in private between narrower interests (as so far they have), one fears who is being facilitated. In such cases demands for scrutiny are necessary to try to widen the ‘partnership’.

    You can’t blame lobbyists and businesses to demand as much as possible along their interests. So if facilitation is the default policy making stance, it is probably important that the government come to their own robust judgements about desired social or legal outcomes and the weighting of competing values and policy objectives. There’s something in here about the difference between simply putting select, vocal interests together to work out their differences, and politicians’ job spec.

  • Ben Bennetts

    Peter, your last paragraph is I think the nub of the problem – what should the role of politicians be in such cases? When it’s big business and lobbyists involved, you want government to “come to their own robust judgements about desired social or legal outcomes and the weighting of competing values and policy objectives”, i.e. set a political definition of what an acceptable policy outcome will be.

    But when it’s the little people, artists or local communities or voluntary bodies, we get calls like Thomas Neumark’s on the RSA Projects blog today (, calls to “support community groups to be themselves” rather than to distort their core identity and purpose in order to follow the funding. Shades of Christopher Frayling in the Great Room in Feb ’05, lamenting the remorseless politicisation of the Arts Council’s funding during Labour’s time in office – in other words, the government coming to a robust judgement about desired social and political outcomes.

    So – is it a case of “big business bad, local communities good” when determining who is allowed to “be themselves” in this Big Society? And if so, is that not a bit of a blunt instrument?

  • Margaret Bowker

    Hi Matthew,

    Enjoyed your article and the comments on it. It reminded me of something I’d said in an article for Periscope Post yesterday, the 15th. Yes, it was easier pre-financial crisis for Government to intervene in communities and facilities were improved in many areas. It was costly, but effective, although projects that were sometimes opposed did tend to happen. Now the idea is for society to take the place of government as the main driver of change. So how does it happen? Well, as one example, in my own area of Milton Keynes, which is naturally activist, stakeholder groups, including big business, interest groups and the Unitary Authority, are contemplating big issues, like ‘what do we want a future MK to look like’ and ‘let’s go for City Status’ and various others.

    Stakeholder meetings can only reach so may people, so working with the local free press, the groups reach out to potentially the entire population and invite participation. The last one I replied to concerned the future, and having backed a number of their ideas and adding opinion from engineers on how these massive improvements could be done, I put in my own little bit about settling up, in liaison with Job Centres and the local business community, a series of Citizens’ Advice type Job Bureax for the hard to place job seeker, in the areas where it would do the most good.

    And yes, I agree about corporate responsibilty and will sometimes step out of the community arena and engage meaningfully with them, when worried about their direction locally and generally; and have found a change. New attitudes seem to be spreading.

    Society as a force for change is a very big idea and will need a lot of stickability and vision. Best wishes to the new enablement unit at No10.