Why do governments promote but fail to deliver their radically new ‘preventive’ policy agendas?

Prevention represents the most important social policy agenda in modern history, but governments do not know how to take it forward. In the name of prevention, the UK and Scottish Governments propose to radically change policy and policymaking across the whole of government. Their simple description of ‘prevention policy’ is: a major shift in resources, from the delivery of reactive public services to solve acute problems, to the prevention of those problems before they occur. The results they promise are transformative, to address three crises in politics: a major reduction in socioeconomic equalities by focusing on their ‘root causes’; a solution to unsustainable public spending which is pushing public services to breaking point; and, new forms of localised policymaking, built on community and service user engagement, to restore trust in politics.

Yet, they may never fulfil their aims. We do not identify the usual implementation or expectations gap, in which policymakers only fulfil some of their objectives. Rather, there is great potential for governments to pursue contradictory policies at the complete expense of their prevention agendas. Their most important domestic policy agenda may never get off the ground.

Why do governments fail to deliver on such a massive scale?

We go beyond the usual cynical answer at the heart of low trust in politics and politicians: ‘politicians always make promises they know they won’t keep’. This assertion can only take us so far, partly because governments tend to articulate pledges to allow them to demonstrate success in government, and most governments fulfil a high proportion of pre-election pledges (Bara, 2005). They rarely propose specific policies that they know are too difficult to achieve. This is what makes the pursuit of prevention policies puzzling: why would they make a specific and enthusiastic commitment to an almost impossible policy agenda?

Our simple answer is that, when they make a sincere commitment to prevention, they do not know what it means or appreciate scale of their task. They soon find a set of policymaking constraints that will always be present. When they ‘operationalise prevention, they face several fundamental problems in policymaking, including: the identification of ‘wicked’ problems which are difficult to define and seem impossible to solve; inescapable choices on how far they should go to redistribute resources and intervene in people’s lives; major competition from more salient policy aims regarding the maintenance of existing public services; and, a democratic system which limits their ability to reform the ways in which they make policy. These problems may never be overcome. Or, more importantly, policymakers may soon think that their task is impossible.  Therefore, there is high potential for an initial period of enthusiasm and activity to be replaced by disenchantment and inactivity, and for this cycle to be repeated without resolution.

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Filed under agenda setting, ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, Prevention policy, public policy, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

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