What needs to change
At its best policy making in the Civil Service can be highly innovative and effective, but the quality of policy advice is not always consistent or designed with implementation in mind. There must be a clear focus on designing policies that can be implemented in practice, drawing on a wider range of views and expertise. At the same time, policy makers must have the skills and tools they need to do their jobs. And they should have a clear understanding of what works based on robust evidence. Policy resources should be focused on ministerial priorities, while improving the ability to scan the horizon better for threats and opportunities ahead.
How to deliver it
Open policy making
Whitehall has a virtual monopoly on policy development, which means that policy is often drawn up on the basis of too narrow a range of inputs and is not subject to rigorous external challenge prior to announcement. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) correctly protects policy advice to Ministers from disclosure. This ensures it is robust, open, honest and constructive. But the need to maintain a safe space for policy advice should not be used to prevent the maximum possible openness to new thinking or in the gathering of evidence and insight from external experts.
The Civil Service and Ministers have used, and continue to use, a variety of mechanisms to involve external experts or the general public in the development of policy advice. For example, the Government will shortly open up drafting of the revised FOIA guidance to the public using a crowd-sourced wiki to be launched shortly on data.gov.uk. This is expected to enable policy to reflect the real-world experiences of citizens and harness public engagement with the policy making process.
The diagram below illustrates the core components of open policy making.
The Civil Service can go further in finding the most collaborative approaches to its policy making. For example:
- Getting wide public input by “crowdsourcing” questions to shape the definition of the problem, not just consulting on solutions.
- Using ‘Policy Labs’ which draw in expertise from a range of people and organisations and provide a unique environment to test new policies before they are implemented. This has been used successfully in Denmark.
- Involving delivery experts early in the policy process, to ensure that the policy can be implemented successfully.
- Creating cross-departmental teams where Senior Responsible Officers (SROs) report jointly to departments.
- Using web-based tools, platforms, and new media to widen access to policy debates to individuals and organisations not normally involved.
- Making more data available freely so experts can test and challenge our approaches effectively.
Contestable policy making
Another way to incentivise the development of high quality, creative policy is to open the policy development process to competition from external sources. This would have the additional benefit of bringing in expertise on specific subject matter when it does not exist in the Civil Service.
The Cabinet Office will create a centrally-resourced match fund worth up to £1 million per year to enable departments to bid for money to put this new approach into practice. This will become operational in July 2012 and run for three years, subject to evaluation. An interim evaluation will be conducted after a year to determine any changes, including to funding, that are required. Departments will be able to bid for an allocation of £500k funding (and provide £500k match funding themselves) to open up specific pieces of policy development to competition. The Cabinet Office will act as a Secretariat to the process and support departments to evaluate the effectiveness of the approach and its value for money. The fund will be overseen by Ministers, and the process will be underpinned by clear contracts – setting out criteria to ensure that the policy being developed is done so in the best public interest, and that it does not favour any bias of the provider. We will continue to need excellent policy managers within Departments, including to support Ministers in securing collective agreement and in translating all policy ideas into delivery. Ministers will continue to have the final say on whether to accept the policy advice generated in this open way13.
Ensuring resources match the Government’s priorities
As departmental resources get tighter and budgets are reduced, Ministers and departments need to be more selective about what policy makers spend their time on, and get better at stopping areas of work which are no longer a priority. This will require a better understanding of the level of resources needed to deliver priorities, and a clearer understanding of what the priorities are. A number of departments are undertaking useful work in this area which the whole of the Civil Service can learn from, for example:
- Ministry of Justice: Every quarter Ministers and officials meet to discuss and agree the Department’s Policy Plan, which sets out the work that can be done with available resource, and which things will be de-prioritised or stopped if new priorities emerge.
- Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra): New and existing initiatives are subject to an Approval Panel Process based on delivering outcomes aligned with Business Plan Priorities, operating in accordance with best practice and value for money, and can be financed within existing Departmental resources.
But this can go further:
- To understand whether departments have challenged their resourcing model in a sufficiently robust fashion, the Department for Education is conducting a zero-based budget review to identify how staff are deployed in relation to priorities and the extent of opportunities to change this.
- Snapshot reviews of DCLG and DWP to look at how policy officials’ time is spent in relation to Ministerial priorities and other activity (for example Freedom of Information requests, EU business and Parliamentary correspondence) to identify the sources of bureaucracy and unnecessary effort.
Too often policy design is considered separately from the practicalities of implementation. Policy advice should draw on a sound evidence base, and a keen understanding of budgetary and time constraints, as well as the incentives for, and barriers to, take up of Government policy ideas at local or user level. In practice policy and implementation expertise need to be brought together at the design stage if advice is to be effective. Alongside sharpening accountability for implementation, which is set out in Chapter 3, Permanent Secretaries must be accountable for the quality of the policy advice in their department, and be prepared to challenge policies which do not have a sound base in evidence or practice. They must also ensure they are content that the implementation of any policy is in line with their responsibility for managing their departments and public money in an effective and efficient way.
Policy skills and expertise
The models used to develop policy need updating to reflect the new tools and techniques now available. The traditional tools of legislation, funding and regulation need to be used more sparingly, and new tools such as behavioural insight, transparency, and digital engagement should be considered more readily.
To ensure that civil servants are well equipped to use new policy tools, and in line with the commitment to learning and development laid out later in the plan, all policy makers will be expected to undertake at least five days a year of continuing professional development to ensure they have the right skills, including in new areas such as behavioural sciences.
Building on evidence of what works
The key test of good policy is the feasibility of implementation. Implementation is covered further in Chapter 3, however an important element of this is a clear understanding of “what works”, building on evidence from policy in practice. In the same way that the Early Intervention Foundation will provide advice to commissioners on Early Years policy and NICE advises the NHS, the Cabinet Office will review the value of creating a similar institute that can test and trial approaches and assess what works in major social policy areas, so that commissioners in central or local government do not waste time and money on programmes that are unlikely to offer value for money.
The Behavioural Insights Team, based in the Cabinet Office was created to find new ways of applying insights from behavioural science to public policy in the UK. In its first two years it has identified tens of millions of pounds of savings by testing new insights in the same way that a new drug might be tested – conducting randomised controlled trials to understand the relative impact of the new intervention. For example, in working with the Court Service the team found that personalised text messages encouraged six times as many people to pay their court fines. When rolled out, it is expected this approach will increase payment rates and save around 150,000 bailiff interventions.
In the United States, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy provides investment advice to legislators on what is proven to work. It has been estimated that it saves the state over $1bn every two years.14
How the Civil Service implements policies is at least as important as how it develops them. The Government has created a new Implementation Unit in the Cabinet Office to focus on strengthening implementation of the policies that have been determined by the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister to be of the highest strategic significance. The Unit will bring together expertise from a wide range of sectors including local government, the private sector and experts from within Whitehall and internationally. It will undertake joint ‘deep dive’ reviews with departments on key implementation issues. Chapter 3 explains how implementation of major projects and programmes will be improved, including with greater accountability.
The Government needs to continue to strengthen its strategic thinking and horizon scanning, given the current environment of change and uncertainty. A review of this capability will be completed by Autumn 2012.