‘Chronic policy problems’ and the common threads between them
For March, WW’s Think-Tank Read of the Month explores the driving forces of Britain’s age of perma-crisis.
Read of the Month aims to signpost the most interesting think-tank reports. The idea is to highlight output that tells us something about what is going on in the policy world, and to think about what the downstream effects might be.
What’s the report?
‘Better Policy Making’, from the Institute for Government (IFG).
What does it say?
This report identifies a number of “chronic policy problems” plaguing the British state, including low productivity, poor further education, regional inequality, and crises in housing and social care.
These chronic problems, it is argued, have a number of common causes. These are structural and cultural issues within our policy apparatus that have proven stubbornly hard to improve over decades. Short-termism, a deficit of specialist knowledge, poor implementation and poor cross-government working are all identified as issues – as is Whitehall’s resistance to learning from outside.
To overcome these problems, the IFG argue for increasing accountability demands on policy advice and decisions. They also make the case for embedding deeper policy expertise into the civil service, and finally, for structural and institutional reforms to try and better join up departments and areas of policy.
What should we make of it?
As discussed in a recent blog post, the language of crisis is increasingly common in British think-tank reports. On one level, this is a simple reflection of the reality of what’s going on in this country. Nevertheless though, it is quite striking that in 2022 middle-of-the-road, non-partisan organisations like the IFG feel confident talking in stark language about the ‘chronic policy problems’ that have arisen from various sicknesses at the heart of the British state.
It seems that there is an astonishingly broad consensus, spanning from Dominic Cummings to Jeremy Corbyn via, seemingly, the civil service itself, that things simply cannot carry on as they are, and that massive reforms are needed.
This is not a normal state of affairs. After 12 years of Conservative governments, you would expect that there would at least be a sizeable coalition of people who think things are going well and that this country has been improved over the last decade or so. A coalition of people whose interests have been met. However, no such grouping seems to exist, which is how you end up in a situation where calls for massive ruptures from the status quo can be considered politically neutral.
Indeed, perhaps the most damning thing from a state-of-the-nation perspective about this report is that, if anything, it undersells quite how ineffectual and weak the state has become. The are plenty of other state/policy challenges challenges that I would deem to be chronic, and unsolvable-under-current-arrangements, including: local government funding, demand for primary care, the performance of the home office and the performance of the Metropolitan police.
That being said, I think the IFG is largely correct in their diagnosis of the underlying issues here. The lack of policy knowledge, of real expertise, in the civil service is a problem that many people have pointed at over the years. The real problem though is that the generalism is not just tolerated, but celebrated as a virtue in Britain’s state apparatus. Civil Service HR-speak describes policy as a ‘profession’, and promotes the idea that if you can advise about one thing, you can advise about another – because the giving of advice is the important skill, rather than knowing about the thing in question.
It is worth noting that this is of a piece with wider trends in the labour market, particularly in senior white-collar jobs. In his book ‘Reckless Opportunists’, which details extensive interviews with many of the most powerful people in the country, Aeron Davies paints a picture of a revolving door between upper-level management positions across key industries and professions. Knowledge of businesses and sectors has come to be considered secondary to some hazily defined set of soft-skills that are supposed to equip you to thrive anywhere doing anything.
Even in that context though, it does seem that Britain’s civil service is particularly in thrall to church of generalism, and as a result light on actual policy and sector specific expertise. The American state apparatus is not something people in this country tend to look to for inspiration in discussions about government reform, with the US tradition of political appointments often portrayed as somehow illiberal.
But accounts of the American state, such as Michael Lewis’s ‘The Fifth Risk’, give the impression that expertise is prized perhaps above all else amongst permanent civil servants over there, precisely because of the politicised nature of the institutions. That side of things is taken care of, unknowable and un-influenceable by rank-and file bureaucrats. Expertise is all that’s left, and so, it becomes the terrain on which people make their careers.
Perhaps there’s something to learn here. But that would involve asking some more fundamental questions about the British civil service…
Which brings us on to another point. Whilst it contains much to agree with, this report remains a very Whitehall-centric account of Britain’s travails. When it diagnosis a mismatch between where decision making power is held and where expertise lies, the answer is unproblematically assumed to be to bring expertise towards power. The idea that we might move power towards expertise, and in so doing actually challenge status quo decision-making arrangements, is not really considered.
Another blind spot in this report is the fact that not all of the things that it identifies as problems are actually problems for everybody. The housing crisis for example, is a crisis for those in the private-rented sector and for would-be first-time buyers. It’s not a problem for landlords though, or for people who bought houses in London in the 1980s. The housing crisis is a conflict… and there is no sense of the scale of the vested interests that need to be taken on here.
On some level it seems that the IFG - despite cataloging a raft of serious issues in the British policy landscape - remain convinced that these problems can be more or less solved by current institutions making internal changes.
I admire that optimism… but fear that that ship has sailed.