Recommendations for good policymaking from the Institute for Government -how can think tanks help?

21 July 2011

I came across the Institute for Government‘s Better Policy Making theme a couple of weeks ago. They have recently launched a report on how to improve policy making in Whitehall (short of the British Government) that is worth reading and paying attention to.

Michael Hallsworth’s and Jill Rutter’s report outlines a number of important lessons and recommendations that are perfectly relevant for think tanks across the world. More importantly, though, the report (and the theme) illustrates the value of studying the politics of policies -and I stand by my number one recommendation to any think tank: make your own business a subject of study.

And the report’s recommendation may also provide some ideas or entry points for think tanks. I’ll address some at the end.

Back to the report.

The study arrives at two main conclusions:

  1. Any reform needs to recognise the real world of policy making. It makes no sense to set out and promote an idealised policy making process with little relevance to what actually goes on in reality. Work by RAPID and the Africa Power and Politics Programme, for example, have been addressing these questions in the international development context.
  2. Policy making must be adaptive. Changes in government, the financial crisis, and other expected and unexpected shocks demand rapid responses from the policy making process to adapt to new challenges and opportunities. The Institute for Government calls it System Stewardship.

What does improving policy making imply? For the Institute for Government this is:

To develop a process that is both resilient to the realities of the policy making system and appropriate for meeting future challenges.

This resilient process is made up by a set of policy fundamentals that together constitute ‘good policy making’.

These fundamentals are affected by a number of components or factors interacting with each other: Structures, culture, controls, politics and skills. Therefore, to improve the fundamentals it is necessary to address these factors.

So back to the fundamentals. The Institute for Government considers that good policy has these characteristics:

  • Goals. Has the issue been adequately defined and properly framed? How will the policy achieve the high-level policy goals of the department – and the government as a whole (with reference to the departmental ‘vision’, as stated in business plans)?
  • Ideas. Has the policy process been informed by evidence that is high quality and up to date? Has account been taken of evaluations of previous policies? Has there been an opportunity or licence for innovative thinking? Have policy makers sought out and analysed ideas and experience from the ‘front line’, overseas and the devolved administrations?
  • Design. Have policy makers rigorously tested or assessed whether the policy design is realistic, involving implementers and/or end users? Have the policy makers addressed common implementation problems? Is the design resilient to adaptation by implementers?
  • External engagement. Have those affected by the policy been engaged in the process? Have policy makers identified and responded reasonably to their views?
  • Appraisal. Have the options been robustly assessed? Are they cost-effective over the appropriate time horizon? Are they resilient to changes in the external environment? Have the risks been identified and weighed fairly against potential benefits?
  • Roles and accountabilities. Have policy makers judged the appropriate level of central government involvement? Is it clear who is responsible for what, who will hold them to account, and how?
  • Feedback and evaluation. Is there a realistic plan for obtaining timely feedback on how the policy is being realised in practice? Does the policy allow for effective evaluation, even if central government is not doing it?

But what about the implementation of policy? Is a good policy on paper enough? Or should be wait and see if the policy is successful before we judge it as good? Is the proof in the pudding, so to speak? The report addresses this issue. Hallsworth and Rutter stress that policy realisation cannot be conceives as separate from policy design:

  • Policy formulation and implementation are not separate, but intrinsically linked
  • The potential outcomes of the policy itself may change significantly during implementation
  • Complexity in public service systems often means central government cannot directly control how these changes happen
  • The real world effects policies produce are often complex and unpredictable.

Hence, policy makers cannot just design and sit back. They must follow the life of the policy -and must be ready to adapt it and re-think it as it interacts with reality. This is what stewardship is all about -not directing but accompanying the process, intervening when necessary, and correcting the course as lessons are learned. To explain the roles of the Stewards, the authors present an interesting analogy from football, in relation to four roles: goals, rules, feedback and response.

  • Goals: The football manager sets an overall goal for the team: win the game. The manager does not stand on the touchline trying to direct every player’s movement.
  • Rules: The game has a set of basic rules: do not use hands, do not take the ball outside a set area. Apart from these basic rules, the players have freedom. The manager does not tell them to do exactly the same thing each time they receive the ball.
  • Feedback: The manager watches the game and sees how it is playing out in practice. The manager watches different parts of the game and tries to see how the team is working together overall.
  • Response: In response to the game, the manager may change the team’s tactics or formation; substitute one player for another; issue instructions to particular players; or give a motivational talk at half time. The manager tries different responses and watches for the effects that ensue.

So making it a reality demands that we address these fundamentals and interventions fall under 6 categories of factors or components:

  • Broadly speaking, policy making bodies must set out clear and public statements of policy making practice -code of conducts- to uphold these fundamentals.
  • In relation to structure: policy bodies (ministries) require a policy director to own and promote the quality of policy making within the organisation. Across the government, a head of policy profession (with the role of ensuring policy effectiveness) must be established (in the UK the Head of the Profession exists, but in other countries this is not the case).
  • In terms of controls: internal and external controls to uphold the quality of policy making must be developed and strengthened: new roles of internal auditors or publicly available sources of evidence and impact evaluations on new policies could be used.
  • In terms of politics and the roles of politicians: Good policies successfully combine the political (mobilising support and managing opposition, presenting a vision, setting strategic objectives) and the technocratic (evidence of what works, robust policy design, realistic implementation plans). Therefore, governments must make clear and public statements of its high-level policy goals to guide departments and ministries in finding the right balance. Ministers and officials also need to be given more and better guidelines related to finding the right balance between political and technocratic interests. To support this, ministers (politicians) need to be part of the policy making process from as early as possible to ensure that co-design and implementation are possible. And a key recommendation, worth setting out on its own is that:

Policy making should be seen as a more open and transparent activity. Analysis and evidence should, where possible, be produced and discussed in advance of option decisions to enable better external engagement with the problem. Ministers should be asked to make decisions from a shared analytic base. Interdepartmental discussions should focus on producing best decisions, not seeking lowest common denominator agreement to reconcile conflicting positions.

  • In terms of skills: Those playing the roles of Head of Policy Effectiveness and Heads of Policy must collaborate to develop and implement ongoing training courses. Most importantly, the civil service must recognise those who are experts in particular fields. Experts must the cherished and used to maintain a body of high quality research evidence in their subject area and networks of key contacts.External expertise, the more effective use of evaluations, and the need to address knowledge management concerns are all important additional recommendations.
  • In terms of culture: The report argues that policy making culture needs to adapt:

policy makers need to reconceive their role increasingly as one of creating the conditions for others to deal with policy problems using innovative and adaptive approaches. Incentives should be used to reward those who energetically search out experience and ideas, network, facilitate and understand the systems in which they operate. Policy making needs to be seen as a practical activity as well as an abstract one, and provide greater scope for policy makers to reflect on how they do things. Finally, in a complex and decentralised environment, expectations and perceptions of policy success need to change

What does this mean for think tanks?

Think tanks need to be equally aware of the realities of policymaking -it is useless if they work with an idealised process in mind. And this reality demands, in my view, that think tanks appeal to more than just research based evidence to develop their arguments: values, interests, experience, narratives, etc. are important sources of power in the policymaking business.

And of course, think tanks’ targets should be those codes of conduct, structures, controls, skills, politics and culture of policymaking -and not just the policies themselves.