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Government Policymaking - How does it work?

by John Alty

Posted: 01 Jun 2015

In his recent book On Rock or Sand?, Archbishop John Sentamu stated that "the Church must present a vision for the ordering of our social life, a political vision". The House of Bishops' letter ahead of this year's Election - Who is my neighbour? - called for "a new direction we believe our political life ought to take."

The Election is over and the new Government has set out its programme in the Queen's Speech. The Church has been careful to make clear that it does not support a particular political party, and is also wary of being seen to have a set of policies which are the right answer. Some might argue that it is the Church's role to point to injustice rather than develop policies to deal with it. Nevertheless it is difficult for the Church to get too far into these discussions without developing some view of what policies are desirable.

The purpose of this note is to explain how civil servants carry out policymaking, on the basis that it is difficult to develop convincing visions and approaches for the flourishing of society without an understanding of how this can be put into effect.

There are many reasons why policymaking is not a technocratic process. But that doesn't mean it is a free for all to which no discipline can be applied. So this note provides a toolkit we use for developing policies or responding to particular policies which are advocated. The point is not to advocate a particular set of policies, rather to explain how under Governments of any colour policy can best be made.

The Civil Service subscribes to a code which requires us to act with integrity, honesty, objectivity, and impartiality. These are basic underpinnings for good policy making. Beyond this, we are expected to reach decisions or give advice "in the public interest". This means constantly balancing competing interests to attempt to find "the public interest". The note considers whether this is synonymous with "the common good".

Let's consider some of the tensions and challenges any Minister will face in reaching "good" decisions on difficult areas of policy. To do this they and we need some more specific guidance than general principles such as the public interest.

First any policy needs to be considered in terms of the objectives the Government is trying to achieve. In other words - are we clear about what the ultimate objective is? Take the Coalition's decision to raise tuition fees for students. This was an unpopular decision and clearly politically very awkward for the Liberal Democrats. The decision was taken against a backdrop of the need to make public spending cuts; the desire to maintain or even increase funding for our very highly regarded Higher Education sector; and to continue to expand opportunities particularly for disadvantaged students to enter HE. There was also a desire to find ways to increase the scope for successful institutions to grow as a result of student choice.

So already we are dealing with a complex and to some degree conflicting set of objectives. Unless there is some degree of debate and consensus about these, our policies risk badly missing the mark.

Secondly, if we have some agreed objectives, which is the best of the alternative means of achieving them? There is rarely only one way of doing so. For instance if we think fizzy drinks encourage childhood obesity, which is undesirable generally and also a serious cost to the NHS, how far will we go to discourage the purchase of fizzy drinks? Options vary from providing information to customers about the levels of sugar, or the potential health risks to regulating the supply of fizzy drinks - taxing them or banning them in certain places.

This leads on to the third critical criterion, which is - what is the evidence for the impact of different solutions? Are there potential unintended consequences of an action taken with the best of intentions? Evidence based policymaking is what every Government aspires to but can be fiendishly difficult. Even when impact could in principle be measured (impact on GDP), economists and others will argue over the analysis and conclusions. But there have been better and worse examples of evidence based policymaking.

The Dangerous Dogs Act has become a byword for rushed legislation based on the principle that "something must be done". On the other side, the National Minimum Wage, which was initially regarded as a jobs killer by business organisations, has confounded expectations and become bipartisan.

Finally we need to ask: is the policy capable of being delivered? One of the risks of policymaking is that - in an effort to target its benefits perfectly - it becomes so complicated that it either cannot be delivered at all or its intended audience cannot cope with its complexity. Some rough justice may have to be accepted to avoid the system seizing up.

The four criteria above are all essential questions for anyone to ask when confronted with either a problem or a proposed solution. But there are some very practical challenges facing anyone trying to make or evaluate policy.

First civil servants, and of course Ministers, often face different interest groups with strongly held and divergent views. This can cause particular challenges when there is a small group who are heavily disadvantaged by change and a much larger group who are beneficially affected to a small degree. Put bluntly, there is a risk that Government will listen to who shouts loudest, or who has deepest pockets. We need to use the techniques above to prevent that.

Since the financial crash, efforts have been made to increase regulation of the banks in an effort to stop or at least reduce the risk of a similar event in the future. The banks have argued that requiring them to hold more capital and take a more cautious approach means less lending to business. But most people would agree that the banks cannot be the arbiter of what the public interest is in terms of their own regulation. The countervailing pressure comes from many places, not a single group - the popular reaction to the impact of behaviour in the banks, the findings of detailed inquiries, the coalition of Governments and international regulators. The Government has to balance the concerns to avoid future financial crashes against the economic consequences of a potentially shrinking banking sector.

This puts a premium on clear thinking and good evidence, looking at the likely impacts of measures which might be taken, both on the banks and the wider economy. This can be difficult if it leads to unpopular decisions. Take a commercial decision by a large company to close one of its plants. When they look at the alternative options, Governments have very often concluded that it is better to work to retrain and support the employees to find new work and attract in new business than to try to preserve an operation of doubtful viability. But these are always tough decisions to take in the wider public interest.

A second key challenge for policymakers is joining up Government. Departments have their own budgets and are accountable to their own Secretaries of State. The solution to some problems may lie well outside the levers the relevant Minister can pull: of course there is constant contact between different Departments, but where a solution might require the transfer of budget from one area to another, especially if it means higher upfront investment, nobody pretends this is easy.

And finally, Ministers face a number of constraints on their freedom of manoeuvre. Many decisions are not taken at national government level at all. Some are taken at supranational level, for instance through a membership body like the EU. Here the UK Government can only influence rather than control proceedings. Others are however taken at local level or by the devolved administrations. The trend is to devolve more decisions and budgets away from Whitehall. As the Bishops' letter notes, the Church of England has a strong commitment to place through its parish system. This means many of the decisions and opportunities which may face clergy in your parishes may engage a coalition of different local authorities and bodies.

Let us return to the question of how the civil servant's understanding of the public interest engages with the values which the Church has promoted - the "common good". How does this engage with morality ? This is difficult terrain. The overarching direction of policy is set by Ministers. Other than in the most extreme cases, civil servants are there to advise on and implement decisions taken by Ministers. This can affect how we interpret the public interest. Some administrations might lay more emphasis on the rights of the individual, and the role of the market than is perhaps implied by the Church's description of the common good.

Nevertheless civil servants do have certain responsibilities: for instance to give frank advice, not simply what Ministers want to hear. In the case of Government expenditure, this can extend to requiring a written instruction, which is made public, when a civil servant head of department believes money is going to be spent in a way which does not provide value for money. The Public Accounts Committee regularly scrutinises civil servants robustly for the performance of their Departments.

This suggests that civil servants cannot be regarded as the mere cyphers of their political masters. It is our job - like that of Ministers - to understand issues not simply from a desk review of the economic research but to be engaged actively with the communities which our decisions may affect. Whilst it is not for us to base our advice on our personal political or other beliefs, it is our responsibility to provide advice which derives from a broad based appreciation of its human as well as financial or economic implications. In this sense the public interest and the common good should not be far apart.

Let me end with some questions which interested clergy might like to consider:

First - Are you clear about the objective the Church, or you personally, are trying to achieve in engaging with or campaigning on an issue?

Second - What's the evidence for the alternative ways of achieving that objective? You are influential people within your areas. You have a responsibility to test the evidence.

And Thirdly - How can you build relations with the people involved in or affected by decisions? One of the powerful messages from the Bishops' letter was that we need to move beyond cynicism or caricature of those with whom we do not agree. Building constructive relations with the relevant people will go a long way towards achieving better outcomes.

About this author

John Alty is the Chief Executive Officer and Comptroller General of the Intellectual Property Office, a post he has held since 2010.


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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.