Policy Process - Identifying Options

To begin at the beginning, someone has to identify a problem or an issue or an opportunity. That ‘someone’ can include a senior executive, the media, a pressure group, a political party (especially when in opposition and writing a manifesto), a Minister, a think tank, a trade association, an ‘expert’, a member of the public or a civil servant. The difficulty, therefore, is not that there are too few ideas, but that there are far too many, and it is quite impossible to run with more than a fraction of them. The natural result is that successful senior executives need to be good at sifting potential good ideas from stupid ones.  It is a bit different in government where Ministers and officials are forced to spend much of their time in defensive mode, either explaining why nothing will be done or just avoiding the issue.

Some generators of ideas are more likely than others to be listened to. Ministers and senior executives are, obviously, in pole position – as long as they concentrate on a small number of initiatives and do not come up with a new idea every day. Outside experts and pressure groups can also be very effective, as long as they are truly respected by their peers. And so can policy advisers, but only once they have earned the respect of their Ministers.

So there are some lessons in this for policy staff:- 

First, try not to be over-defensive. The world is full of good ideas, hidden amongst even more bad ones. Your job is to help your bosses identify the good ones, even if they are counter-intuitive, from an unusual source, or from a highly critical pressure group.

Second, take every opportunity to gain the respect of senior colleagues and decision makers before espousing a novel idea. New Ministers in particular bestow power on those they trust. To begin with, they will prefer to deal with their political advisers and others that have previously supported them through thick and thin.  Newly appointed chief executives will also already have, or will import, previous colleagues whom they admire.  They will eventually come to trust you as well, and bestow power on you, but only if you earn that trust over a period, and by responding positively to their agenda.

Third, seize an opportunity when it presents itself. Don’t let it slip by. The best moments of a civil service career,for instance, will be when you have put an idea to a Minister, or a Minister has put an idea to you, and you jointly see the possibility of achieving real change. You will dash off to gather colleagues around you, and map out a dramatic and challenging strategy. You will write your ideas up that evening, re-write them when you have calmed down in the morning, and get back to the Minister, with a really positive programme, within 24 hours – and then you really are on your way.

There is a nice example, told by Sir Geoffrey Holland, which illustrates much of the above. Every year – a good time ago – the British Safety Council used to send a telegram to the Prime Minister drawing attention to the accident rate in factories and saying that the situation warranted an enquiry. Every year the telegram was passed from Downing Street to the Secretary of State for Employment, then down through the department until it reached the desk of a middle manager who each year drafted the same defensive reply: ‘The Prime Minister thanks the Safety Council for their telegram, the contents of which have been noted’. But one year the telegram was accidentally seen by a senior official called Charles Sisson who recognised the truth of the point that was being made, and penned a minute agreeing with the Council. Out of this came the Health & Safety Executive, and our whole approach to health and safety at work was modernised.

(An interesting commentary on the background to the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act may be found on the Understanding Regulation website.)

It's slightly different, but I do like this story recounted in Barbara Hosking's Exceeding My Brief. Christopher Cockerell had been experimenting with a weight-bearing cushion of air for fifteen years and need a grant to enable him to continue his experiments. He met a civil servant in a small conference room and the official sat on a table while a green Lyons coffee tin glided over the carpet under his feet. Suitably smitten by the idea of this weird invention, the official approved the expenditure and a hovercraft could subsequently be seen under development on the Solent.

Policy Objectives

The previous paragraphs encourage you to be enthusiastic when developing new polices.  But you should not necessarily accept the detailed policy objective in the form that it is presented to you. It is always sensible to spend a little time considering whether a slightly different objective - or a looser or tighter formulation - might not be better.  In particular, it might be possible to achieve a similar objective at lower cost.

DCMS, for instance, seem to have allowed Sport England to spend billions of pounds since 2005, boosted by the 2012 Olympics, in order to increase sporting participation - and yet the numbers participating in organised sport have steadily fallen. The (figurative) goal posts were eventually moved so as to include a much wider range of physical activity, so including park runs, low cost gyms and mass participation cycling - none of which were created as a result of Sport England support. It looks very much as though the original objectives were misconceived and/or the department took a very long time to address the way their (our) money was being wasted.

Exploring Options

What policy options might be available? Put shortly, all organisations, including government, can do one or more of only four things if they wishes to change the behaviour of customers, staff or the general public.

Exhortation means deploying all possible presentation skills, including getting key stakeholders on side, working with the media, leaflets, advertising, speeches and so on. As noted elsewhere, presentational issues should be considered early in any policy development process and effective presentation can sometimes achieve significant policy objectives on its own.

Nudging has become popular in recent years, though it can be criticised as being a deliberately covert way of forcing some one to do something that they would not do if they thought hard about it. A more detailed discussion of nudging and behavioural economics may be found on the Understanding Regulation website.

All too often, however, exhortation and nudging will be insufficient and you will need to move on and consider one of the next three options if you really want to have an impact ...

... But then you will find that senior executives and politicians have a strong aversion to raising taxes or spending money (which are two sides of the same coin.  In government, Ministers prefer you to offer new legislation or regulations – but this route too can lead to huge resentment amongst those who are to be regulated, and can also have a large impact on the economy. There is much to be said, therefore, for genuinely open consultation, seeking views on the true scale of the problem and on a wide variety of ways in which it might be tackled. And don’t forget to consult on the ‘do nothing’ option. It is often the best one!


Martin Stanley

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