How would Lisa Simpson and Monty Burns make progressive social policy?

Many of us may have a broad idea about how to make good, ‘progressive’, social policy. Or, we might find a lot of agreement on a collection of (albeit often-vague) terms to describe a philosophy of policy and policymaking.

This may relate to a drive to reduce inequalities, and perhaps the costs of public services, by getting to the ‘root cause’ of problems, or encouraging a focus on the ‘assets’ of individuals, encouraging people to participate and ‘co-produce’ their public services, and developing the ability of local communities to tailor national policies to their areas.

In some cases we might focus on the idea of ‘wellbeing’, to develop meaningful outcomes-based (and generally non-monetary) measures of improvement, or ‘early intervention’ and ‘prevention’, in which we address the root causes of problems by tailoring public service interventions to meet needs at the earliest point of a person’s life, rather than addressing problems as they become acute. Some of this policy may be universal, but we might also recognise that some people can be usefully targeted as ‘higher risk’ or in greater need of support.

We might also focus on the importance of employment and economic activity, as a key part of a drive to improve people’s mental health or wellbeing by encouraging them to participate (when possible) in society and develop meaningful social networks.

So far, so good. At this level of generality, this collection of ideas might generate cross party support. For those on the ‘left’, it offers a sense of social justice and reduction of inequalities. For those on the ‘right’, it offers the potential to reduce public service costs and shrink some parts of the state.

Yet, this agreement is often illusory, with the potential to break down dramatically when people turn a broad agenda into concrete policies and draw on additional ideas about, for example, the types of groups that deserve the state’s ‘benefits and burdens’.

There is an episode of The Simpsons which sums up this potential (albeit it’s totally made up and the example is to do with environmentalism): Lisa Simpson and Monty Burns agree on the nature of the problem, and both seem to be well intentioned, but they come up with fantastically different ideas about the practical solution (and how we should treat other animals).

To a large extent, this similarity and difference can be found in the mix of UK and Scottish Government policy and policymaking. If you look at key documents, they now talk in an almost-identical language, focusing on root causes, inequalities, public health, parity between mental and physical health, the importance of employability and employment, the assets-base of individuals, co-production, early intervention, the benefits of localism over central direction, and the need for central government to share policymaking responsibility with local government, public bodies, and a wide range of actors in the third and private sector. They are both making choices that often raise profound questions about the ethics of state intervention into the lives of individuals and families. They also both make the right ‘noises’ about the benefits and risks of state intervention, and this kind of language would, I think, be welcomed broadly across the public sector and in social policy circles.

Yet, what comes next is a different matter. The Scottish Government has cultivated a reputation for taking the Lisa Simpson approach, generating a sense of benevolent state intervention and making sure that its interventions receive fairly wide ‘ownership’ in key parts of the public sector – albeit while generating some dissent in key issues, such as on public health measures (most notably, a minimum unit price of alcohol) and the state guardianship of children (most notably, the idea of a ‘named’ person for each Scottish child). a regular feature of interviews with England-based interviewees is that they look fondly to Scotland and its social policies.

The UK Government, on the other hand, often looks like the Monty Burns character, by producing controversial policies on, for example, major welfare retrenchment, reducing entitlement to benefits related to unemployment, particularly for people with recognised disabilities (but based in part on the importance of employment to wellbeing) and a Troubled Families programme which is often described as punitive and stigmatising (but based in part on the principle of early intervention and the identification of the root causes of social problems).

In other words, the same basic principles can be used in a way that produces profoundly different policies.

Part of our current work is to try to explain why those differences in policy and policymaking, by the UK and Scottish Governments, might arise, and what their effects may be. It is too simple to state that the differences relate to the political parties in office: the SNP in Scotland and the Conservatives in the UK, largely because we are talking about long term trends that transcend parties. Other possible explanations include:

  • Their division of responsibilities. The UK Government still has responsibility for hot button issues such as welfare reform and employment. It still takes the ‘hard choices’ that tend to divide people politically, and produce highly visible winners and losers.
  • Their consultation and ‘governance’ processes. The Scottish Government has a reputation for inclusive and consensual policymaking (between governments and interest groups), which could relate generally to a policymaking ‘culture’ but does relate specifically to the scale of its task (its responsibilities are limited, and it is small enough for policymakers to form often-meaningful personal relationships with participants). It also has a reputation for a ‘governance’ style that values partnership with the public sector, and a relatively high acceptance of long term measures of success, compared to the UK Government which often combines a focus on ‘localism’ with short term targets and performance management to maintain central control and accountability.
  • The broader ways in which they characterise and treat ‘target populations’. We should resist the tendency to think that, in terms of political culture, Scotland is the home to left wing social democracy while England is increasingly right wing, intolerant and small state. The social attitudes surveys do not support this dichotomy of image. Yet, if we can detect a level of political competition based on these broad categories (in other words, Scottish parties may be more likely to compete using ‘left wing’ language), we might identify a tendency by their respective governments to articulate the same broad policies in very different ways.

With Emily St Denny, I am looking at these issues in a number of ways, albeit focusing primarily on the study of Scotland as part of the broader work of the Centre on Constitutional Change, and I can provide further links to these studies as we go along. Current examples include:



Filed under public policy, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

2 responses to “How would Lisa Simpson and Monty Burns make progressive social policy?

  1. Pingback: Case studies: prevention and early intervention to address austerity and inequality #POLU9SP | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  2. Pingback: Early intervention policy, from ‘troubled families’ to ‘named persons’: problems with evidence and framing ‘valence’ issues | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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