Breaking and remaking the art of public policy

I sometimes imagine what it would be like to work in the civil service. In my version, it’s essentially the West Wing but with more tea. I stampede down corridors barking out orders to underlings in the service of benevolent politicians. I have their back, and we’re making the world a better place.

Friends who’ve actually done the job report that most of the time it is, of course, nothing like this.

One of the problems with being an absurdly over-centralised country is that Whitehall has to deal with a whole load of things that would, in a saner world, be none of its goddamn business.

This means that quite a lot of Whitehall’s work is basically like trying to improve the yield of a vegetable patch by shouting it at it loudly and hitting it with a large inflatable mallet. If you’re lucky, you get to take credit for the fact that the vegetables grew. If not, then it was the fault of the notoriously unreliable and partisan soil.

This is one reason why policy making in Britain often appears broken. Grand schemes like universal credit flounder helplessly in the delivery. At the DoH, ministers continually hymn the importance of social care and prevention before piling all their money into more treatment. At MHCLG the government continues to pretend that our housebuilding oligopoly is really a market that can somehow be defibrillated into building a load of affordable housing, rather than letting local government fill the gap in an obviously failing market.

Working in council strategy, I’m continually struck by how little policy we actually produce. This isn’t because we don’t have important issues to think about — from terrorism to regeneration, and from health to benefits, we’re everywhere. It’s because we have a bias towards action and work really closely with services to get things done. Our output is usually a new way of doing things. Sure, there are graphs and data, but it’s all totally integrated into the doing. Much of the time our strategy emerges from delivery, not vice versa.

You can’t do that in Whitehall, because too often you’re nowhere near the delivery. The civil service — or at least the policy bits of it — put a premium on thinking and paperwork over action. I was briefly involved on the fringes of the Grenfell disaster last year and remember some extended discussions with ministerial aides about whether a strategy slide deck was right, when to be honest we just needed to get out into the community and learn from people on the ground (and the minister was surplus to requirements, IMHO).

I was reminded of all of this last week when I spotted the new civil service executive masters in public policy at the LSE. As far as I can tell, this programme replicates all of Whitehall’s vices. It promises to educate the next generation of policy leaders, but carries with it the blithe assumption that those leaders already work in Whitehall. It focuses on ‘cutting edge analytical techniques’, which would probably be mid-table on my list of things the civil service needs to be better at.

There’s a place for really high quality policy analysis, but it lies in the high politics of economic regulation, financial planning, criminal justice and other areas that can only be managed nationally. In a world where the UK wasn’t pretty much the most centralised country on the planet, the EMPP would be totally awesome. But we aren’t living in that world, and if Whitehall is going to continue buggering about in the problems of local areas then its policy makers need a completely different kind of formation. We need to put collaboration with frontline delivery staff, service design techniques and an engagement with real world problems like flytipping, social care and DTOCs to the fore.

Better still, we’d erase the lines between national policy and local delivery entirely, and make policy through squads made up of civil servants, frontline staff and the communities they are seeking to change, all with an equal voice. Whitehall officials would spend less time occupying the commanding heights and more working alongside changemakers on the the ground, understanding national blockages to change and seeking to remove them. Civil servants would be trained to act as facilitators, not advisors. There would be fewer of them.

In the meantime, we in local government need to proudly assert that we’re getting on and building something different — a more emergent, agile and design-focused approach to policy making in the real world. Let Whitehall draw its graphs in its sealed chambers; those of us at the sharp end will take some change instead.

*Usual caveats apply. Yes, Whitehall friends, I know it’s #notallcivilservants and that Policy Lab is pretty cool.