Annual RSA Chief Executive Lecture 2016

Why policy fails — and how it might succeed

Sep 14, 2016 · 14 min read

By Matthew Taylor

Follow Matthew on Twitter @RSAMatthew

Thanks to everyone who came to my annual lecture on Monday night and for the really encouraging response I got on social media. I am also very grateful to Professor Nick Pearce for being such a good chair and respondent. Several people asked if a copy of the speech would be available so, here it is. And, of course, if anyone feels like giving us the money to make the UBI Commission a reality we’d be only too glad to hear from you!

For most of my working life I have pursued social progress through designing and advocating public policy. The many failures and occasional successes along the way have led me to a conclusion. In pursuing progress through policy we should both be more sceptical and more ambitious. This evening I will try to explain this apparent paradox.

Also, there is something now that makes this conversation urgent. I believe today’s RSA could help bring about a concrete change more significant than any I have pursued before — the introduction of a universal basic income. To fully grasp that opportunity we must understand the work that policy can do for us but also acknowledge when policy alone is unlikely to do the job.

The policy presumption

Across my career I have approached social change from many angles: At the local level as a County Councillor, as the director of a campaign and advocacy organisation. I was an academic emphasising conceptual clarity rather than developing solutions. I worked for a political party. There the assumption was that as long as our people got into power, progress was guaranteed. I ran the think-tank ippr — an honour I shared with Nick. We hoped that rigorous analysis and the pragmatic development of policy options would lay the path to progress. I worked as a Downing Street advisor where that faith in robust policy was combined with the imperative of holding on to power and coping with the constantly shifting demands made by events.

Then I came here to the RSA. Over the last ten years we have gradually reformed the Society in the pursuit of greater distinctiveness and impact. We have had to be clearer about our mission and focus, more ambitious in our reach and more active in recruiting and supporting Fellows as change makers.

Our evolving RSA methodology has reflected and reinforced a growing doubt about what I have called ‘the policy presumption’. By this I mean an assumption among ministers, civil servants and policy advisors, but equally all of us, and it really is all of us, who from time to time urge them to act: The assumption that, on the whole, the most effective way to accomplish social change is to pull the big levers of central Government policy; legislation, tax and spend and earmarked funding streams.

There is an obvious problem with this view: big policy is hard to get right. Very hard. From any perspective the recent record of central Government policy isn’t great. There are the disasters, like the poll tax, the Child Support Agency, and rail privatization. Universal Credit is in the process of joining that inglorious list.

Then there is the underwhelming impact of thirty five years of continuous reform of public services. There have been hundreds of pieces of legislation and thousands of targets. Yet, had we simply devolved control of education, health, policing and other public services to cities and regions and let them get on with it, with just a limited power of central intervention when things went wrong, would public services really be in a worse position?

And, despite all this policy activity, we are living with the failure to tackle major problems; social inequality and lack of mobility, the economic marginalisation of many areas outside the South East, stagnant living standards, the scale of unmet care needs, low productivity and an economy still deeply dependent on debt.

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Each policy failure has its own causes. But there are underlying forces at work too. The growing complexity and pace of change in the world mean that policy is made against a shifting and unpredictable landscape. Globalisation not only generates new tough problems but it can make it harder for Governments to act effectively alone. The public is more diverse, more reactive, less inclined to trust and compliance. Policy makers have to deal with what Helen Margetts and her colleagues recently termed the ‘chaotic pluralism’ of politics in an age of social media. True, there are some new tools in the policy makers’ kit like big data, better research methods and the use of more sophisticated behavioural techniques. Taken as a whole, the harsh reality is that policy aiming for significant social change faces an ever harder task in the future.

Which leads me to my apparent paradox. On the one hand, I believe that we should be more sceptical about attempts to achieve specific social outcomes primarily though policy intervention. There are limits, tightening limits, to the work that policy alone can do. On the other hand, in the areas that matters most, our ambition should be to create a new social equilibrium, using policy as one weapon in our armoury. If our goal is an irreversible reordering of the social landscape, our method must be many-sided, subtle, patient, and opportunistic.

Earlier I listed policies that had failed. Here are three that succeeded:

The first is the Scottish Constitutional Convention. Whether or not Scotland eventually votes for independence devolution has been a success. Few Scots want to dissolve the Scottish parliament. Yet, back in 1979, when the first referendum was held in the dying days of the Labour Government, devolution, although scraping a majority, fell well short of the turnout threshold set by Westminster. Most commentators thought the argument had been lost for generations. Yet, by 1997, despite the popularity of a newly elected UK Government, the level of support for devolution had moved from just over half to just under three quarters. In 1979 turnout was modest because people were unsure of the case — in 1997 it was modest because the outcome was a foregone conclusion.

Many factors were at work, not least hostility in Scotland to the eighteen years of Conservative Governments that came between the referenda, but any history of this shift would have to credit the work of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. The Convention was an association of Scottish political parties, churches and other civic groups. It not only built a broad consensus for devolution but also undertook the hard graft of developing a blueprint for the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. So well did the Convention do this tricky, painstaking work, that by 1997 it felt that the referendum and legislation that followed was not so making change as confirming it.

Two other examples: the Minimum Wage is now a national institution. So great is public support that the Government names and shames rogue companies as an enforcement device. Yet, in the seventies and eighties, the minimum wage didn’t even command the support of most trade unions. Partly because it was a problem suffered disproportionately by women, low pay wasn’t seen as a big issue.

The minimum wage was the culmination of a long and determined campaign in the unions, and more widely across civil society by people like Chris Pond at the Low Pay Unit and Rodney Bickerstaff, General Secretary of the trade union NUPE. The campaign was also part of a broader process of women getting their voices heard. By the time the wage was introduced in 1998, even most employers were expressing support. Today not only do we have a the legislation but — evidenced by the profile given to the excellent work of the Resolution Foundation — we have a social and political consensus that low pay is problem we need to try to solve.

A different example is provided by the ban on smoking in public places. In my role in Number Ten I was involved in managing a fierce row in the Cabinet about the proposed ban. Trying to negotiate between John Reid and Patricia Hewitt on a mobile phone running out of power in a toilet on a packed train is not one of my most positive memories of life at the top. Mind you, I guess there could be worse stories about a Labour politician and a crowded train. But, despite the attempt to John and others to block the law it was the logical and, in hindsight, inevitable culmination of a process of public education and advocacy that went back decades. In particular, the evidence on passive smoking had fatally undermined the libertarian argument against prohibition. The ban reflected and enacted a shift in public opinion. By the time it was implemented most venues had already acted voluntarily. Its implementation was uncontroversial and comprehensive.

There is something to notice about all these examples. In every case, not only did legislation come after broader civic engagement and action but rather than generating a backlash — which is what badly prepared policy can often do — they increased the demand for change: Scots have more devolved powers, the smoking ban has been extended to cars containing children, the minimum wage has become the living wage.

To achieve a new social equilibrium we need to think systemically about the context for change and the factors involved in success. There is a set of minimum success requirements for major social policy: yes, it must be robust, but it also needs to align sufficiently with existing or emerging social values and offer the prospect of tangible gains that help people achieve their own goals in life. But we also need to be pragmatic, responsive and creative. We have to build to the social moment when the right policy can expand possibilities not close them down. At the RSA we call this approach emergent impact.

Despite the jargon, there is a danger this all sounds a bit glib. Policy that is popular and embedded in civic practices is likely to work, policy that isn’t is likely to fail. No shit, Sherlock! Yet, with the need of politicians to do something and be seen to do something, and with our natural desire to believe problems have simple solutions, we forget the obvious over and over again.

The case for Universal Basic Income

So, what happens when we find a policy idea that we are convinced could make a major, positive difference, but which lacks either public support or civic engagement? I ask this because it is exactly where we are in the UK on the Universal Basic Income.

The UBI is, as I am sure you know, an unconditional living allowance paid to all citizens (or in some versions all but the well-off). The RSA’s version of UBI and the case for it has been spelled out in a report and in subsequent articles and speeches by my colleague Anthony Painter. A new Animated explainer will be on the RSA website in a few days.

We see UBI’s primary virtue as responding to the growing tide of insecurity and anxiety in our labour market. Government is understandably proud of its record of job creation, but less is heard about the fact that over the last decade or so almost all the growth can be accounted for by what the OECD calls ‘non-standard employment’; casual and temporary employment, part time work, self-employment and the new and fast growing phenomenon of gig work. The RSA has explored the many benefits of self-employment, but evidence also points to significantly higher levels of job insecurity and anxiety in the lower reaches of the labour market, as well as low and declining sense of agency and control at work. By guaranteeing people an unconditional income — albeit a very modest one — we can help people in a number of ways.

We can provide a base line from which people can build flexible employment and self-employment, improving work incentives and strengthening the bargaining position of the low paid.

We can shift the state welfare apparatus from monitoring, policing and enforcing, to supporting people into work and into progression in work. And we can provide greater support for caring, for volunteering and for adult learning.

This is a powerful case. So I have a question. How do you think I should respond if Theresa May were to ring me tomorrow and say she had decided to introduce a UBI in the next Parliamentary session? To be honest I can’t actually be sure how I would respond, but the better part of me hopes I would say ‘thank you Prime Minister, but I advise you not to do it’.

To understand that response I want to go back to something for which Nick Pearce, my respondent tonight, and I share responsibility (although he deserves more credit than me) and which — had I been standing here seven years ago — I would have said was the proudest achievement of my professional life.

Both in ippr and in Government, Nick and I were involved in persuading Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to introduce the Child Trust Fund. The Fund was launched in January 2005, and provided every eligible child born after 2002 a voucher of £250, plus an extra £250 for children from deprived backgrounds, and the promise of a top up at age seven. The schemes would reach maturity when the child was 18.

The policy was a carefully crafted response to the evidence gathered by ippr and others on the growing role of asset inequality in unequal life chances. Having savings — even quite modest ones — has a disproportionate impact on people’s sense of efficacy and opportunity. Furthermore, existing state incentives for saving are regressive in their impact.

The policy was broadly supported, including all the then major political parties. But, in 2010, when the first round of austerity cuts were announced by the Coalition Government, the Child Trust Fund was at the top of the list. The Government had decided that a policy that wouldn’t actually benefit anyone until 2020 was a pretty painless target. Judging by the very muted response, their political judgement was spot on.

The Trust Fund was not abolished because the policy was failing, nor had the case for it weakened. The case for asset-based interventions was acknowledged earlier this year by George Osborne in his final budget when he announced a scheme called ‘help to save’ which bore a striking similarity to the Child Trust Fund’s sister policy the ‘Savings Gateway’ (which was also abolished in 2010).

Notwithstanding the pressure of austerity, the reason the Trust Fund went without a bang or even much of a whimper was political. Using our evidence and our networks, we had won the case among Whitehall policy makers without deeply engaging the public. Some financial institutions developed products to support the Fund and a few joined the very limited protest when the cut was announced, but apart from this not enough people knew about the policy, understood the rationale underpinning it or had a sense of how they and their families might benefit from it.

Once the policy had been enacted most of its architects moved on to other issues. In financial terms the Trust Fund was a relatively modest step, but we failed to use it to build a social consensus about the need to tackle asset inequality.

This is why I would urge caution if the Government offered to implement the RSA’s Universal Basic Income scheme tomorrow. Because, although interest is growing in the policy here and abroad with pilots either happening or planned in places as diverse as Ontario, Finland and Kenya, we still have a major task of public persuasion, engagement and invention ahead of us.

There are technical challenges for UBI but I believe they can be overcome. Much more important are the objections to the very principle. Among these are:

  • That removing conditionality from claimants will further reduce the legitimacy of welfare
  • That this will also be bad for the poor by reducing their motivation to do the one thing that could most help them, namely getting a job
  • That UBI is an abandonment of the progressive idea of the dignity of work

If the case for UBI is to succeed it is vital that they are properly addressed as I believe they can be. Properly implemented UBI can improve work incentives and the quality of work too. Even if we can’t convince people we need to avoid the temptation of talking to ourselves, engaging, for example, with what people actually think about people on benefits, not what we would like them to think. But this isn’t just about public opinion. Just as important is that civil society is prepared to gain the full benefits of UBI and to mitigate its risks.

How can employers rise to the opportunity for more flexible forms of working? How can third sector organisations and social entrepreneurs — especially those working in disadvantaged areas — develop opportunities for forms of volunteering that increase people’s skills and confidence? How can the Department of Work and Pensions help people get employment with real prospects and help them to progress? How can colleges and other learning providers develop more flexible training opportunities taking advantage of opportunities like digital credits? And for churches, trade unions and community groups, how can we champion a new era of working class collective action and self-improvement?

Ultimately, basic income will need Government legislation. It will have to be well designed policy. The RSA’s model is in many ways very modest, having limited distributional impacts and creating a UBI well below the poverty line. But what excites me is the possibility that it could build a bridge to a better society. That like devolution or tackling low pay or public health a UBI law is one step on a broader journey of progressive change.

A broad and inclusive UBI movement needs to open up a series of debates about the 21st century; debates that we ought to be having already.

  • How can we provide people with more opportunities to work flexibly without adding to our problems of insecurity, low pay and low productivity?
  • How can we take a step change in social ambition so that our goal isn’t simply that everyone can have work, nor even that employment offers a decent living, but also that work provides the scope for meaning and fulfilment?
  • How can we acknowledge and honor the vital importance of care to our economy and society
  • More broadly, how can we have a richer conversation about social progress that links the bewildering pace of technological change and the necessity for sustainable economic growth to ideals of human development.

The most difficult and important politics of UBI is not about persuading civil servants or ministers, but about convincing citizens to imagine and shape new possibilities for their society and for themselves.

The question is how we take forward these debates and how we go about building a groundswell of support for and engagement with UBI?

In my annual lecture last year, which explored the idea of a human welfare economy, I floated the idea of a Citizens’ Economic Council: a major deliberative process that would demonstrate the capacity of ordinary, thoughtful citizens to engage with economic ideas. Thanks to the generous support of our partners the Barrow Cadbury Trust and the Friends Provident Foundation, we launched the Council and its ambitious two year programme in June.

This evening I want to float another proposal.

I would like the RSA to host a UK Basic Income Convention. This body, which would have a high profile independent chair, would bring together institutions across society — businesses, charities, churches, trade unions, community groups — who are at least open to the idea of UBI. The Convention secretariat would compile, generate and disseminate evidence, strengthen national and international networks among basic income supporters and — most importantly — explore and generate the conditions necessary for UBI to be not just a successful policy but something that genuinely shifts the dial of our society in a progressive and humane direction.


We live in disorienting and challenging times.

The world of science and technology brings news almost every day of remarkable inventions and possibilities. Yet these amazing opportunities are not matched by our faith in a better future. Progressives — whether of the left, right or centre, cannot win unless citizens have a tangible and personal sense of what progress might mean.

Some people say UBI is just too radical a departure from the assumptions and practices of existing policy. For me it is the radicalism that makes it so appealing. It can become a symbol of a renewed belief in the possibility of major advances in the way we live, the way we treat each other and what we expect from life.

I have come on a journey in my thinking about change. Experience has chastened me. I still think policy can change the world but only when it is part of a bigger shift and when it is shrewdly designed to channel and accelerate a wider civic momentum.

Ultimately, the case for UBI is not just for a new policy, created by Government, but for a new society created by us all.

The annual RSA Chief Executive’s Lecture 2016 took place on 12th September 2016

Basic Income — find out more about the RSA’s support for Basic Income


Written by


The mission of the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) is to enrich society through ideas and action.


Written by


The mission of the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) is to enrich society through ideas and action.

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