Monthly Archives: September 2020

The UK government’s lack of control of public policy

This post first appeared as Who controls public policy? on the UK in a Changing Europe website. There is also a 1-minute video, but you would need to be a completist to want to watch it.

Most coverage of British politics focuses on the powers of a small group of people at the heart of government. In contrast, my research on public policy highlights two major limits to those powers, related to the enormous number of problems that policymakers face, and to the sheer size of the government machine.

First, elected policymakers simply do not have the ability to properly understand, let alone solve, the many complex policy problems they face. They deal with this limitation by paying unusually high attention to a small number of problems and effectively ignoring the rest.

Second, policymakers rely on a huge government machine and network of organisations (containing over 5 million public employees) essential to policy delivery, and oversee a statute book which they could not possibly understand.

In other words, they have limited knowledge and even less control of the state, and have to make choices without knowing how they relate to existing policies (or even what happens next).

These limits to ministerial powers should prompt us to think differently about how to hold them to account. If they only have the ability to influence a small proportion of government business, should we blame them for everything that happens in their name?

My approach is to apply these general insights to specific problems in British politics. Three examples help to illustrate their ability to inform British politics in new ways.

First, policymaking can never be ‘evidence based’. Some scientists cling to the idea that the ‘best’ evidence should always catch the attention of policymakers, and assume that ‘speaking truth to power’ helps evidence win the day.

As such, researchers in fields like public health and climate change wonder why policymakers seem to ignore their evidence.

The truth is that policymakers only have the capacity to consider a tiny proportion of all available information. Therefore, they must find efficient ways to ignore almost all evidence to make timely choices.

They do so by setting goals and identifying trusted sources of evidence, but also using their gut instinct and beliefs to rule out most evidence as irrelevant to their aims.

Second, the UK government cannot ‘take back control’ of policy following Brexit simply because it was not in control of policy before the UK joined. The idea of control is built on the false image of a powerful centre of government led by a small number of elected policymakers.

This way of thinking assumes that sharing power is simply a choice. However, sharing power and responsibility is borne of necessity because the British state is too large to be manageable.

Governments manage this complexity by breaking down their responsibilities into many government departments. Still, ministers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of issues managed by each department. They delegate most of their responsibilities to civil servants, agencies, and other parts of the public sector.

In turn, those organisations rely on interest groups and experts to provide information and advice.

As a result, most public policy is conducted through small and specialist ‘policy communities’ that operate out of the public spotlight and with minimal elected policymaker involvement.

The logical conclusion is that senior elected politicians are less important than people think. While we like to think of ministers sitting in Whitehall and taking crucial decisions, most of these decisions are taken in their name but without their intervention.

Third, the current pandemic underlines all too clearly the limits of government power. Of course people are pondering the degree to which we can blame UK government ministers for poor choices in relation to Covid-19, or learn from their mistakes to inform better policy.

Many focus on the extent to which ministers were ‘guided by the science’. However, at the onset of a new crisis, government scientists face the same uncertainty about the nature of the policy problem, and ministers are not really able to tell if a Covid-19 policy would work as intended or receive enough public support.

Some examples from the UK experience expose the limited extent to which policymakers can understand, far less control, an emerging crisis.

Prior to the lockdown, neither scientists nor ministers knew how many people were infected, nor when levels of infection would peak.

They had limited capacity to test. They did not know how often (and how well) people wash their hands. They did not expect people to accept and follow strict lockdown rules so readily, and did not know which combination of measures would have the biggest impact.

When supporting businesses and workers during ‘furlough’, they did not know who would be affected and therefore how much the scheme would cost.

In short, while Covid-19 has prompted policy change and state intervention on a scale not witnessed outside of wartime, the government has never really known what impact its measures would have.

Overall, the take-home message is that the UK narrative of strong central government control is damaging to political debate and undermines policy learning. It suggests that every poor outcome is simply the consequence of bad choices by powerful leaders. If so, we are unable to distinguish between the limited competence of some leaders and the limited powers of them all.


Filed under COVID-19, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), POLU9UK, public policy, UK politics and policy

The ‘Scottish approach’ to Policymaking

This post first appeared on the CCC blog.

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In his chapter for the Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics, Paul Cairney examines the alleged distinctiveness of Scottish policymaking. These comparisons tend to be with UK government, which ignores the opportunity for wider comparative assessment.

The phrase ‘Scottish approach’ is one of several descriptions of the distinctiveness of Scottish Government policymaking.

First, academics use the phrase ‘Scottish policy style’ to describe the Scottish Government’s reputation for two practices: a consultation style with stakeholders that is relatively inclusive and consensual; and, a governance style that places unusually high levels of trust in the public bodies that deliver policy.

Second, the first Scottish Government Permanent Secretary John Elvidge used the phrase ‘Scottish model of government’ to describe the potential for joined-up or ‘holistic’ government. The model would exploit its relatively small size, and central position in a dense network of public sector and third sector bodies. Ministers and their equivalents in the civil service would have briefs spanning traditional departmental boundaries and come together regularly to coordinate national strategies. They would foster a long-term focus on policy outcomes and reject a tendency to set restrictive and damaging short-term targets. For example, the National Performance Framework (NPF) identifies a broad purpose and strategic objectives which map on to performance measures and agreements with public sector bodies to align their objectives with the NPF.

Third, his successor Peter Housden took forward the ‘Scottish Approach to Policymaking’ with reference to three broad principles: to seek improvement in public services via collaborative government; to focus on people’s ‘assets’ (rather than ‘deficits’) when designing policy; and to co-produce policy with the public sector, stakeholders, and service users.

Overall, the ‘Scottish approach’ began as a broad idea about how to govern by consensus in a new era of devolved politics, then developed into a way to pursue: holistic government, an outcomes-based measure of policy success, greater local authority discretion in the delivery of national objectives, and several governance principles built primarily on localism and the further inclusion of service users in the design of public policy.

Is the ‘Scottish approach’ distinctive?

The claim to Scottish distinctiveness tends to relate to a contrast with UK policymaking, which is problematic in two main ways.

First, it downplays the importance of international trends which influence UK and Scottish government. For example, most of these policymaking aims are summed up in the phrase ‘new public governance’ (NPG). NPG describes an international shift of ideas to seek alternatives to the relatively top-down and centralist ‘new public management’ (NPM), and it includes the emphasis on coproduction and collaboration so central to Scottish Government rhetoric.

Second, the Scottish and UK governments both face similar pressures that contribute to rather contradictory policymaking styles. On the one hand, they act pragmatically to recognise the limits to central government powers and harness the benefits of working in partnership with other bodies. On the other hand, they must project an image of governing competence based on strong central control. The overall result in both governments is a tendency to juggle two very different approaches to policymaking.

The chapter discusses two key examples of this contradiction at the heart of policymaking.

The first is a focus on ‘evidence based policymaking’. Each government juggles three ways to use evidence to inform policy and practice: a centralised model, a decentralised model, and a compromise model to combine both elements.

The second example relates these approaches to leadership, in which each model fosters different skills, such as to manage change from the top down, or ‘let go’ and foster collaboration, or provide a mix of direction and encouragement. In each case, the need to maintain democratic accountability via national governments creates a series of potential contradictions, in which policy is driven by the centre but in partnership with local bodies; encouraging those bodies to experiment and take risks, but also intervening to manage risk.

It concludes that the ‘Scottish approach’ should be seen primarily as ‘a statement of aspiration; an attempt to put distance between the Scottish Government and its image of UK government policymaking’. For any government, there is always a major gap between such aspirations and policymaking reality.

The ‘Scottish Approach to Policy Making’ was published in The Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics in August 2020 in the UK and Europe by the Oxford University Press. 

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