Shifting Policy Networks: what is the implication for (evidence based policymaking and) accountability?

Since this is not a detective novel, I will give you the answer at the beginning: the implication is that we are less sure who is powerful, who to lobby (with evidence) and who to hold to account for public policies.

These are just early/ draft thoughts on some new research I am doing on the policy process in the UK. I am thinking about these rather stylised comparisons of policymaking, past (in my day, everyone seemed to be studying ‘policy networks’, which describes the relationships between policymakers and the groups they consult with) and present (many still are, but we call it something else).

In the olden days, when we discussed UK networks and communities, the idea was that there were two main processes: the high level, relatively brief, consultations on policy strategy, often involving ministers, and the lower level but longer term consultations on implementation. The next idea is that groups got ‘two bites at the cherry’ – if dissatisfied with the first process, they knew that they could still have longer term influence through their networks with civil servants in government departments. This was a feature of a lot of the literature on the Thatcher government: the reputation was for a rejection of consultation by key ministers, in the process of producing radical changes, but ministers often changed (and became more diplomatic), and groups were more involved over the longer term (and, indeed, they could still feed in advice via civil servants). This is non-trivial influence, since policy develops as it is being implemented. The assumption is that power is centralised at one brief point in time, then diffused, and that the diffusion is healthy.

Consider this potential change in departments which have delegated a lot of policy decisions to public bodies – such as which budgets to cut and which services to prioritise in a crisis. Ministers may coordinate high level cross-departmental strategies which get immense buy-in from groups and make everyone briefly happy. Maybe it’s also evidence based. Then, the day-to-day operation, which is often separate, involves making decisions that undermine the strategy. In other words, groups may have the opposite problem: happy at first, then unhappy with the longer term direction. They could lobby ministers and government departments, but what if those departments no longer direct the administration of policy in such a meaningful way? What if ministers and civil servants are equally concerned, but don’t feel they can (or want to) intervene? It means that groups, if they want to have this longer term influence, need to lobby a much larger number of organisations. However, since those public bodies can redirect such lobbying efforts – it’s a policy matter? See the minster. It’s about X? See the other public body – that strategy is not so easy. Each public body may also have its own ideas about which evidence is relevant and what incentives it has to do something with the information. It’s also more difficult to know who to hold to account for such decisions. The minister may be ultimately accountable, but be so ‘hands off’ as to minimise the meaning of the term ministerial accountability.

My sketchy conclusions are:

  1. These two broad images qualify what we used to think of as a ‘pluralist democracy’. In the past, it may have been a proxy for a way to feel less bad about the worst excesses of a centralised Westminster system: don’t worry so much because, despite appearances, the government consults regularly with groups and civil servants seek legitimacy for policy decisions beyond elections. Now, in a more messy policymaking environment (or at least one that seems more difficult to understand), it is more difficult to imagine what a pluralist democracy looks like.
  2. Maybe the difference seems more significant because the analysis is biased by value judgement: the old system seemed OK because righteous groups challenged electorally minded politicians. The disconnect, between the initial strategy and the final outcome, has always been there. Is the problem that it undermines the work of groups for which we have a soft spot?
  3. The shift prompts a rethink about the benefits of this set up: more localism? More continuity? More clarity between strategy and administration? A good division between long term public administration and the whims of ministers? If so, we would need to think about how to hold people and organisations to account, in a meaningful way, if the main route is no longer for ministers to be accountable to the public via Parliament.

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Filed under public policy, UK politics and policy

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