Policy-making in the age of austerity: a case for more speed, more consensus, more politics?

A trio of organisations published a report this morning on Policy-making in the age of austerity. [Link to download PDF report] The Consultation Institute, Stratagem and Objective Corporation used Northern Ireland as a case study to examine how the current consultation fatigue could be overcome with more meaningful, timely and useful processes.

The report’s authors outline four challenges to current patterns of policy-making:

  • expenditure constraints (“cash shortages can render existing policies unworkable and hasten the time when they need to be re-examined” as well as affecting the affordability of the policy-making process itself);
  • institutional instability (in terms of public sector reorganisations and “erosion of corporate memory”);
  • public expectations and the growing impact of social media; and
  • transparency and the continuing case for evidence-based policy-making (in a world of Freedom of Information and the time-consuming and expensive collection of good evidence).

Around social media, the report accurately comments:

Neither does grassroots opinion appear to be decisive. Although we have heard much about the power of new technology, and social media in particular, beginning to have real influence elsewhere, it appears to have less traction in Northern Ireland.

Not a single policy-making practitioner or influencer consulted for this paper could quote an issue where Facebook, Twitter or the other applications of social media has made a demonstrable difference.

One academic observed in explanation that the stereotypical social media campaigner – retired tertiary educated professionals have largely opted out of political action in Northern Ireland! [emphasis added]

Implementation and deliverability of policies remains an issue in Northern Ireland. Great ideas that fail to materialise on the ground.

The size and political clout of the public sector in Northern Ireland will pose enormous problems to any politician having to contemplate unpopular changes to hospitals or schools, but as such scenarios are now more likely, departments with forward-planning responsibilities cannot avoid examining options once considered unthinkable.

A focus on delivery issues means moving away from desk research and engaging more actively with those who have the responsibility for service delivery. This is precisely the area where the Sunningdale Report* made its most trenchant criticisms of Whitehall. But it is also, according to some observers, a weakness in Northern Ireland, and will not be addressed if, by ‘deliverability’ the Executive intends to de-emphasise stakeholder consultations and move prematurely to immediate and risky implementation.

One solution might be draw a clearer distinction between more technical stakeholder consultation which could be a fast- track ‘bureaucracy-light’ process on the one hand and more general community-wide issues where the broader, traditionally 12-week consultation model is still appropriate.

* The Sunningdale Institute published a Cabinet Office-commissioned study to examine how policy-making could be improved through better engagement and connection with front-line professionals.

Finally the report suggests a model of Policy Lifecycle Management, which while seeming very obvious, may be a structure that is missing from some local policy development and implementation.

Two of the paper’s conclusions could perhaps be summarised as more speed, more consensus, more politics.

Speeding up the policy life-cycle to accommodate faster decision-cycles place a premium on consensus (see panel on next page). Reconciling conflicting views, refining policy options to allow for special interests, endlessly revising proposals to eliminate opposition all takes time and money, and is less affordable at times of economic difficulty. Whatever can be done to prepare the ground through pre-consultation engagement will yield a good return on the investment.

As a consequence policy-makers need to be more politically astute than ever before. This means more than just being politically aware. It involves securing the quality of up-front dialogue with ultimate decision-makers that will clarify the scope for discretion in the policy development phase of the life-cycle. It also requires courage and skill in communicating to politicians the drawbacks and disappointments of previously-agreed policies where their outcomes differ from what was anticipated.

A useful, if wordy, contribution to what is hopefully the start of a debate about the value of engagement and consultation, methods of employing it that improve the proposals and implementation – rather than just being a tick in a box – and that deliver better services for citizens.

Update – One of the report’s authors Rhion Jones from the Consultation Institute has recorded an audio introduction to the report.

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  • aquifer

    Transparency can increase efficiency and cut costs.

    All the documentation for policies should be visible on the internet. Poor civil service document management systems cannot reliably and cheaply deliver up on freedom of information requests after the fact, so the documentation should be structured and visible from the start of the process, with documents signed off by named individuals to provide audit and assurance.

    We could see later if policies met their original claims, or were based on dodgy evidence, or if promised procedures were actually followed.

    Ministers should be allowed to take risks and make mistakes, but cover ups and a lack of visibility destroy the potential for learning and increasing value for money.

    And lets talk about our money, how much for what exactly?

    Dissembling Sir Humphrey letters are useless, the piles of detail that can be stored and accessed in modern IT systems can speak for itself.

  • aquifer

    What is the alternative?

    Falsely presenting government as omnipotent and infallible is anti-democratic, hiding the potential for positive change and flattering the abilities both of cynical apparatchiks and of former councillors who brought their block vote with them to boost them up to be MLAs.

    Spending other peoples money under a cloak of secrecy is also destructive of the feeble private sector in Northern Ireland, draining both cash and motivation.

    And what of public sector corruption and paramilitary influence?

    How big did they grow while English ministers looked away and tended to the needs of Westminster parties?