One Team Government: a short guide to policy for government digital professionals

This is the second of four posts I’m publishing in the run up to the One Team Government unconference on 29 June 2017. One Team Government is a new bottom-up community of digital and policy officials in and around the UK government who are coming together to learn more about each other’s work and to explore how these roles are starting to merge.

My first post was a crowdsourced reading list for policy officials interested in digging deeper on digital, which is posted on GitHub to allow updates and new recommendations.

Two subsequent posts will discuss what the digital and policy professions might best learn from each other, and propose a prototype for how digital policy officials in government might work — a One Team Government manifesto — which is designed to be discussed at the unconference on 29 June

Why this post?

In Whitehall ‘policy’ and ‘digital’ can at times feel like they are entirely different universes, populated by colleagues with significantly different skill sets. But these worlds are colliding, and the working practices and underlying assumptions of both disciplines are likely to be challenged and perhaps significantly so as the digital revolution continues its inexorable pace. The two disciplines have not always seen eye to eye as digital has wrestled for its place at the most senior Whitehall tables, but there is a new cadre of officials coming together under the banner of One Team Government that are rewriting the way in which government works and are curious about each other’s disciplines.

This article is written from this same spirit of positive disruption. There has been a variety of work across government to explain the new world of digital to existing civil servants, but perhaps less attention has been given to explain the world of policy to digital colleagues, and even less has been done to figure how these two disciplines need to entwine in our new world. This article has come from having had a foot in both policy and digital/data in the Cabinet Office and Government Digital Service in recent years after a longer period as a public service reformer and policy official within big Whitehall departments and local government. It seeks to answer a question often posed quietly by individuals in digital teams: what is policy?

What is policy?

Policy is a word used to describe the government’s position or approach to a particular issue. The term ‘policy profession’ has come into use in recent years to describe those civil servants who advise and carry out this work, having emerged from the historical and increasingly inadequate catch-all description of the civil service ‘generalist’.

Despite policy’s presumed pre-eminent position around government, as a newly established profession we have sometimes struggled to describe what it is that we do. In guides to policy making for new civil servants we introduce our profession using jargon (“delivering change in the real world”), or in tautological terms (“when we talk about policy we are talking about the decisions made by the government in light of the advice provided by civil service policy officials”).

Perhaps a more specific description is that policy work is about drawing on familiarity with evidence, politics and delivery to advise Ministers about an appropriate course of action, and then putting in place activity to make it happen.

Figure: ‘Three key elements in policy making’, Twelve Actions to Professionalise Policy Making, 2013

Figure: Policy Profession Standards Framework, 2017

The profession expects that civil service policy officials will have an intellectual grasp of the possibility of different political and practical interpretations and interventions that cover not just the ‘the what’ but also ‘the how’, and will use these abilities to challenge assumptions and evaluate different potential options. Officials are expected to have the ability to understand not just the detailed matter in question, but also a much wider context comprising of politics, citizen pressure, media, business and other stakeholder views and how all these factors could influence and be influenced by different recommended actions. As a result, regardless of the narrowness of the issue in question, policy officials are alert to the potential for most government activity to impact on a much wider public arena and also to have an impact on the collective experience of the public realm, and not just individual citizens experiences of government.

Policy professionals are expected to have an understanding of when, why and how government might intervene on a particular issue (see HM Treasury Green Book p11), and be especially alert to different types of market failure and (eg public goods, information asymmetries, monopoly) or matters of equity or security. They are also expected to be conscious of different forms of intervention (including the possibility for no intervention), including:

  • Legislation, regulations or other Parliamentary or legal intervention
  • Funding a type of activity, programme or commissioning external activity
  • Designing or amending a service or intervention, including establishing pilots, prototypes or demonstration projects
  • Choosing the appropriate structures through which a service should be administered, or a system given oversight: for example in-house provision, arms-length body, commissioned charity or social enterprise, commercial provider, or through a free market regulated to different degrees
  • Intervening with or galvanising an external community or profession, running campaigns aimed at particular professions or a wider group of citizens
  • Establishing standards, principles or voluntary codes of behaviour
  • Setting the tone and parameters for discussion, drawing attention to issues, interfacing with media and communications, communicating narratives
  • Analytical and innovative intervention techniques, including behavioural science, data science, use of social media and other digital techniques

The skills required of policy officials include an ability to navigate and cut through complex bureaucracies and to be aware of how power and authority are transmitted through organisations, cultures and people, how incentives impact on them, and assessing how much change and of what type the situation will bear. They are rewarded for clear thinking and intellectual and ethical rigour and challenge, alongside a multi-faceted knowledge comprising of wide range of skills: intellectual, analytical, political awareness and history, legal, communications, commercial, economic, financial, project management, statistical/numerate, digital, and operational disciplines.

Policy officials are expected to develop and retain deep domain expertise and situational awareness on a topic, and to be able to communicate this knowledge clearly and succinctly in written and verbal formats, and where necessary persuade and argue a point successfully — regardless of their own personal point of view. The best have a good dose of creativity in problem solving which is used to tackle a challenging situation, and the ability to make deals and understand the commercial realities of a situation are increasingly prized. Alongside all this, policy officials have always been expected to be action-focussed and to understand the constraints and opportunities on policy from delivery and operations, although it is frequently these points that can be a point of contention in discussions about the interface with policy and digital (and a subject of the next post)

Also, ‘policy’ is not a single type of activity: it varies widely along what is sometimes presented as a spectrum from strategic policy covering the broadest questions (eg ‘what should the accountability regime for schools look like’), through the design of a particular public service in response to Ministerial or legal challenge, to much more specific rule setting for operational officials (eg ‘what are the operational procedures that must be followed by officials at the border as a result of the Immigration Act and subsequent court rulings’). It sometimes involves work directly with Ministers (eg in private office), or in Parliament (managing a particular piece of legislation), but routinely it involves being responsible as a general system steward for a particular area of government activity and response (eg planning policy within a Housing and Planning Directorate), perhaps with responsibility for particular arms-length bodies, sections of industry, and sometimes also ownership of front-line services.

Successful policy officials come in many different guises, but telling phrases that resonate include the ability to ‘manage ambiguity’, expected in the relatively common situation when different outcomes or mechanisms are desired from the same policy area by senior figures of equal power and influence, and yet for reasons outside the officials’ control the ability to bring about a resolution to that ambiguity is not possible. A counterpoint is the emphasis put on the term ‘judgement’, which can involve an official’s ability to accurately assess the situation in an especially complex matter that requires knowledge across different disciplines, and to find a route to cut through and bring about progress on that topic.

The next post in this series will look at what the policy and digital professions in government might learn from each other.

More reading

Twelve Actions to Professionalise Policy Making

HM Treasury Green Book

Institute for Government, Policy Making in the Real World

Policy Lab and Open Policy Making blog

Civil Service Quarterly

The Policy Profession on GOV.UK

The What Works Network

Civil Service Learning Policy Profession (requires government email/password)