Did all those ministerial initiatives work?

TL:DR “Politicians like to panic. They need activity; it’s their substitute for achievement!” Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes Minister, 1980.

Rose Grayston discovered this interesting chart in Urban Geography by Michael Pacione (2009, Routledge). It has been part-digitised here, with the accompanying text to the chart.

Above – UK major policy initiatives 1965-2005, from Pacione 2009.

Rose Grayston then asks:

It’s not THAT surprising that people in so-called #leftbehind places are suspicious of government programmes really, is it?!

I agree – and I was one of the now former civil servants who worked on urban and social policy during my career, working in a team responsible for at least two of the policies featured in that chart. These were short-lived Local Area Agreements, and the New Deal for Communities, where I was part of the team responsible for the planned closure of the programme after its ten year run.

Before we ask where all these initiatives came from…

One of the things that struck me when doing my A-levels was how so many adults would talk up ‘hard’ subjects like chemistry, and talk down ‘soft’ subjects like sociology. This was in the late 1990s. I will forever regret following so much bad advice during my mid-late teens, including doing geography, economics, and maths at A-level rather than politics, history and economics. But too many people said “Oh you can’t do three essay-based subjects because of all that writing!” As it turned out, A-level maths turned out to be the most useful, but the teaching was so woeful both at college and university that I never got deep enough into it in the way I could have done. I was more of a visual person – a sort of “Plot that data on a graph, show me what it looks like” rather than “show me the equation and let’s unpick it” person.

It was only over time that I started to realise the importance of issues covered in both sociology and media studies to politics, history and economics that I started to question not just why so many adults were disparaging the former two subjects, but why there was this artificial divide between the sciences and the arts/humanities – and why the latter two were bundled together when compared with the sciences. But in a nutshell the message seemed to be:

“Maths and sciences are ***complicated stuff*** that we don’t understand but people in those fields seem to be very successful while those lazy art students over there are woolly liberals who want you to have free stuff for nothing and then run out of someone else’s money!”

I made up the above quotation.

For years I’ve been questioning why we don’t have evening classes in the sciences & engineering for adults in lifelong learning programmes – something that might introduce the scientific advances that have happened since older generations left school. So much so that I put in some policies in my manifesto when I stood for election in 2014 to Cambridge City Council under the name of my old Twitter persona Puffles the Dragon Fairy.

Above – 89 people voted for Puffles in 2014 in Coleridge Ward. (The old manifesto is here, and given how some of the policies in it have since been adopted by Cambridge City Council, it goes to show you don’t have to win an election to get the policies you like implemented. The adult education classes in the sciences is still work in progress!)

So…where did these initiatives come from?

From a mix of election manifestoes, think tanks, policy units, and sometimes the back of an envelope. Some of them last for years – such as the New Deal for Communities, while others last as long as the minister or secretary of state behind them lasts. An example of the latter is Hazel Blears’ White Paper Communities in Control of July 2008.

Have a listen to the speech by Ms Blears introducing her paper to the House of Commons when she was Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Also note the comments from the opposition spokespeople, Eric Pickles who would later cull the department and local government during austerity (my job and career with it), and Julia Goldsworthy for the Liberal Democrats who was one of the most high profile and talented MPs the party had at the time, and whose failure to get re-elected in 2010 represented a huge loss to the party and to women in democracy as well. As an aside, had she been re-elected I think she would have become and perhaps still be party leader today. Out of all of the Liberal Democrat MPs that lost their seats in 2010 and 2015, the loss of Ms Goldsworthy (as well as that of Dr Julian Huppert in Cambridge) hit the party the hardest. Have a listen to Ms Goldsworthy’s speech here.

“What did Ms Goldsworthy say and what is interesting about it?”

Part of this underpins Liberal Democrat philosophy on local government over the decades. It is also one of the political fault lines that separates Liberal vs Labour. The former prefer doing things through local councils, the latter have no problem creating new national infrastructures that bypass local governments. The National Health Service is one such example, and Labour’s proposal for a National Care Service is another example of it.

Ms Goldsworthy’s main point was that many of the community action-related policies in the White Paper could and should be delivered by local councils, and Whitehall should either give local councils the funding, or even better, the legal independence from Whitehall and The Treasury to raise their own revenues through a wider range of local taxes in order to do so.

The debate on what the most appropriate level of government is the right one for each different service is one that will run and run, just as the debate on which services should be delivered & funded by the state vs the private sector. Think the nationalisation and privatisations of the public utilities – gas, water, electricity, and so on.

“What does success look like?”

This for me gets to the crux of Rose Grayston’s post: How do we know whether any of these initiatives worked? This requires a form of project closure and an evaluation. The problem is that Whitehall is not good at doing either, and even when it does, the major learning points are not publicised nearly far and wide enough. Take the New Deal for Communities – over £2billion spent over a ten year period. There was a significant research and evaluation portion to the programme. Have a look at the final report here. See also a discussion piece on why neighbourhood level regeneration is so difficult. For those of you with university access, there’s this academic paper from 2010 on area-based regeneration.

“I’m not interested in all that complicated stuff and all that paperwork produced by middle class academics! Cut taxes, cut politically-correct council spending on saving newts and let the private sector get on with creating jobs for the economy!”

Public policy – and social policy within it is complicated by its very nature. It’s not like making widgets or nik naks on a production line where everything has to be standardised and identical, with the same set of inputs. In the 1980s taxes [for the wealthy and affluent] were cut, and spending was cut – and it had a devastating impact on communities all over the country.

Furthermore, it’s not as simple as cutting corporation tax as was done by the Coalition. Looking at what has actually happened since the 1980s having implemented such tax-cutting policies, we have time series data we can analyse against the claims.

Fewer, better planned, and more flexible initiatives from ministers, and more independence but better risk management at the centre for local government?

There is an anticipated White Paper on local government reform coming up, with a proposal to reduce significantly the number of local councils in England. A paper published by the County Councils’ Network reveals that their modelling indicates the biggest financial savings will involve converting all the existing shire level councils into unitary councils and scrapping all of the districts underneath them.

I started to unpick it here, noting that their assumptions did not account for alternative methods of revenue raising, nor did it go into much detail about regional working, lines of political/democratic accountability, and some of the lessons learnt on partnership working with other organisations of the state that fall outside of local government. Eg local NHS services. At my most cynical I said that the CCN paper could simply be the political cover ministers need to implement a policy that could be very unpopular with its own councillors. “Look at what this highly reputable non-party-political, independent organisation said about our wonderful policy! Therefore we must be right!” sort of thing. My take is that while big local government reform is needed, it has to be done on a much bigger scale with a much larger research base and a significant level of public involvement where they can help define the scope of of the reforms rather than simply being given a few choices and asked to pick one.

On making policy-making accessible

It’s still a growing area as universities expand their academic public policy units. One of the big challenges they face is publicising their research not just within Whitehall but to the wider public. In this they are up against well-resourced partisan organisations which don’t all play by the same rules. This is something that the Who Funds You? collective campaign on. Because what’s the point on doing all of that academic research on a policy area and coming out with hard researched recommendations when potentially it can all be overturned by a wealthy, powerful individual having dinner with a politician or a minister? The most recent example of this was all the work done on planning in Tower Hamlets, including coming up with calculations for Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) contributions in one major development scheme. And the developer so very nearly got away with avoiding having to make a £45million payment to the local council for the CIL through lobbying the Housing Secretary at a private party political fund raising dinner. In the end the Housing Secretary had to concede when the local council took legal action.

And finally…

The chart itself makes the case for having historians embedded in government departments. A whole host of questions can be asked and answered, avoiding the dead ends of previous initiatives through to highlighting where a context has changed due to historical events. This in part persuaded King’s College London to set up its History & Policy unit.

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