The Modern Way of Making Public Policy

by Ray_North on January 16, 2018

Once upon a time – the making of public policy went a bit like this: Party A would have an internal policy making process, into which expert opinion would be considered and the merits of the policy considered; then, if there was support for it, they would offer that policy to the electorate – at this stage there was an understanding and an acceptance that the policy might not be universally popular, but, as it had usually been properly debated and refined and was often based upon a matter of principle, then Party A would be in a good position to argue its merits in front of an electorate which were deemed clever enough and involved enough to give a toss. Often the other party would oppose and object, but, just as often, the synthesis of this debate was fairly coherent government.

That was then.

Let’s look at policy making today and let’s, as a case study consider the Government’s whispered environment policy that was launched with all the fanfare of a parole board decision, last week.

Stage 1 Experts spend a great deal of time and expense considering an important matter, such as the future of the planet. They produce reports which are detailed, thoroughly researched and based upon academic expertise. These reports are roundly ignored by everyone.

Stage 2 National Treasure makes a documentary about a particular issue, such as the preponderance of plastic in our oceans or the shrinking of the polar ice-caps; and, as National Treasure is revered by national media, in particular right-wing media, populist right wing newspaper shows some sympathy with the cause.

Stage 3 Press Officer, Spin Doctor and assorted wonks have meeting in Westminster and decide that, as National Treasure is loved by everyone and has brilliantly highlighted the issue, then they must have an immediate policy on it – ‘even better’, says someone, ‘we can add it as part of a major rebrand.’

Stage 4 Prime Minister’s Office is contacted and is sympathetic to both cause and in particular ‘rebrand’, though accepts hasn’t previously given a monkey’s about the issue, but understands how good it will look as part of a new ‘caring image,’ that it is trying to portray – a decision is taken to come up with new policy for a press-conference to be held within days, because all realise that if they leave it too long then issue will have been superseded by the next thing.

Stage 5 Number 10 drafts a policy document and shows it to the Treasury. The Treasury says ‘no chance,’ far to expensive, far too many spending commitments and sends it back to Number 10. Number 10 re-drafts replacing any actual policy commitments involving spending with words and phrases like ‘review’ ‘plan’ ‘integrated targeting,’ ‘we will work towards,’ and ‘a firm commitment to.’

Stage 6 Policy is launched with a certain amount of hyperbole on the Today Programme and a couple of paragraphs in the Times and Guardian before being forgotten forever until the next time a National Treasure makes another programme.

Meanwhile, the experts, who really know what they’re talking about, draft more reports advising us how things could actually be much, much better.

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