What happens when UK Governments try to control and delegate policymaking? #POLU9UK

To celebrate Andy Murray becoming number 1, I have recorded the podcast in the style of him giving an interview:

 

British politics looks weird because UK governments have contradictory incentives: to look like they are in control, but delegate most, of policymaking; to take but shuffle off responsibility for policy outcomes; to hold on and let go.

These incompatible incentives reflect our incompatible stories of British politics:

  • One stresses central control, the other stresses complexity and emergent outcomes despite central government intervention
  • One stresses the need for central control to ensure clear lines of accountability, the other stresses the need for pragmatism and how ridiculous it is to hold people to account for things over which they have minimal control.
  • One gets all the attention, despite being misleading, partly because it relates to a simple and comforting message on accountability and the exciting world of high politics. The other gets little attention, despite being more accurate, because its message is confusing and often boring.

So, when we discuss the big post-war developments in British politics, and their impact on policymaking and accountability, we should not expect to find a grand or consistent plan. Instead, post war government reforms reflect these contradictions, and prompt a tendency for elected policymakers to delegate or ‘shuffle off’ most responsibility but intervene in unpredictable and inconsistent ways.

What were these big changes? 1. A shift from state to market?

I say this not to diminish the argument that major changes from the 1970s, to alter the balance between the state and market in the UK, were often ideologically driven. Rather, don’t assume that the consistent/systematic application of that ideology is the main explanation. In some cases, governments:

  • diluted their reformist beliefs, preferring pragmatism and realistic aims
  • pursued reforms for simple aims such as to bolster their popularity
  • accepted or reinforced the actions of their predecessors (even if from another party)
  • pursued major reforms after key events and crises seemed to force their hand.

Overall, politics is often about telling a story about handling government or crises well, not actually controlling events and outcomes, and no single elected government can oversee a 10, 20, or 30-year plan to reform the state in the scale we witnessed.

Still, we can now see fundamental differences when we compare the UK state with that of the 1970s. Examples include:

  • A ‘paradigm’ shift in economic policy, from ‘Keynesian’ to ‘monetarist’ economics (see Hall), prompted by economic crisis in the 1970s under Labour and the election of a Conservative government in 1979. For example, governments no longer promise to achieve ‘full employment’ via measures such as capital investment (indeed, the Thatcher government appeared to accept high unemployment while favouring inflation controls).
  • Privatisation. The sale of public assets (including major nationalised utilities and local authority owned social housing), break up of state monopolies, injection of competition in the public sector, introduction of public–private partnerships for major capital projects, and charging for government services.

In both cases, you can see one form of this debate on central control playing out: for some advocates of economic reform and privatisation, this was about producing a ‘rejuvenated’ and ‘lean’ state, with ministers able to focus on core tasks – making strategic decisions and creating rules for others to follow – without having to pretend that they can control the economy or manage major industries. In this account, post-war developments were based on the idea of state planning and central control over the economy and most public services, while post-79 developments were driven by the belief that such planning had failed.

Although prompted by the Conservative government of 1979-97, the Labour government from 1997-2010 reinforced most measures (and privatised more services than Thatcher would have envisaged). It also extended the idea of limiting central government ministerial intervention in the economy by introducing Bank of England independence (making it primarily responsible for interest rates and strategies to manage inflation).

  1. A shift from ‘rowing’ to ‘steering’?

This ‘lean’ theme is summed up in the metaphor (made famous by management consultants Osborne and Gaebler) of ‘steering, not rowing’, in which governments decide to provide direction to public services/ public servants rather than managing them directly. Also look out for the phrase ‘new public management’ (NPM) which mostly describes the application of private business methods to the public sector. Examples include:

  • Civil service reforms to separate strategic ministerial/ operational decisions and make public servants more directly accountable for the latter.
  • Quasi-markets. Public bodies like hospitals and schools are given greater operational independence. One part of the public sector competes with another for (say) the business of commissioning agencies and/ or to compete in league tables of performance.
  • Quangos. The increased use of quasi-non-governmental bodies, sponsored by government departments but operating at ‘arms-length’ from elected policymakers.
  • Public sector reforms in which non-governmental bodies play an increasing role in service delivery while subject to regulation, inspection, and performance management.
  1. Constitutional

These reforms, often designed to give a sense of reinforced central control, are different from decisions by the UK government to shift power upwards, to the European Union, and downwards,(a) in 1999, to devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and (b) through various experiments in regional government (in the early 2000s) and ‘localism’ (from 2010).

What is the overall effect of these reforms?

These reforms prompted several debates about the modern nature of the UK state, based on questions such as, Is it ‘hollowing’ or rejuvenated?

  • Is UK central government now less able to influence policy outcomes, and more reliant on persuasion and cooperation from many actors in policy networks? Do we talk about multi-level governance, not government, because no single government can control policy? Is this the great irony of reform: they were designed to reinforce central control but they actually exacerbated the UK’s governance problem?
  • Or, has central government shuffled off direct responsibility for the previously unmanageable parts of the public sector that took up a disproportionate amount of ministerial energy (major industries, local government, Scotland), and become more powerful via regulatory mechanisms or more able to shift blame?

When considering these questions, note how this UK-specific discussion can be supplemented by the ‘universal’ factors we discuss in POLU9UK and covered in the 1000 Words series, including: ministers are boundedly rational, operating in a policy environment with a huge number of actors, and apparently unable to control outcomes that ‘emerge’ from complex systems. In other words, the answer to the ‘hollowing’ question will not come only from an analysis of UK government policies.

What is the effect on ministerial accountability?

As in Scotland, the UK Government has experimented with many forms of accountability based on one of these two stories of central government:

  1. Westminster-style democratic accountability, through periodic elections and more regular reports by ministers to Westminster. This requires a strong sense of central government and ministerial control – if you know who is in charge, you know who to hold to account or reward or punish in the next election.
  2. Institutional accountability, through performance management measures applied to the chief executives of public bodies, such as elected local authorities and unelected agencies and quangos.
  3. Accountability via pluralist democracy, fostering the shared ‘ownership’ of policy with stakeholders to produce choices that both support.
  4. Localist democracy, encouraging a sense of collective responsibility between local authorities and their stakeholders.
  5. User based notions of accountability, when a public body considers its added value to (and responds to the wishes of) service users, or public bodies and users ‘co-produce’ and share responsibility for the outcomes.

Yet, 2-5 generally seem incompatible with, or overshadowed by, 1. Ministers think that the public expects Westminster-style accountability, so they try these other measures but also:

  • Try to show that they still control the direction of delegated services, often with reference to problematic proxies of their own success (see the example of Troubled Families)
  • Intervene in an ad hoc way in the decisions of public bodies that they’d otherwise like to run themselves (see Gains and Stoker)
  • Or, they seem to delegate power to public bodies but introduce so many regulations, budget limits, and performance measures that it is difficult for those bodies to exert their autonomy (see the example of ‘prevention policy’, in which central governments simultaneously support and scupper various forms of prevention and early intervention).

Group work

In groups we can discuss these major reforms and the extent to which they were driven by a grand plan or a series of unfortunate events.

We can discuss accountability and try to explain how and why ministers intervene in some areas but not others.

Since we focused on the two basic stories of (lack of) control in week 2, this week we can zoom in to discuss specific measures to demonstrate success in government or produce the appearance of control. What examples spring to mind?

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Filed under POLU9UK, UK politics and policy

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