Can voluntary organisations improve government policy making?

It sometimes seems that just about everybody is fed up with government policy making. Ministers complain that the policy making machine is too slow – hence we get shortened consultation periods. Analysts fret that too much policy isn’t informed by evidence (whilst admitting that the problem might be a lack of useful evidence). Journalists lament that we get political rabbits pulled from hats at setpiece events such as the Budget, making for bad policy. Voluntary organisations are often fed up that we’re not involved in the policy development process, presumably between the periods when we’re struggling to deal with the weight of consultation documents, some of which may be more meaningful than others. And evaluators argue that too much of this stuff fails at the point of contact with the recipient. There’s inevitably some truth here: so, can policy making be improved?

Peter Riddell, Director of the Institute for Government and former Times and FT journalist, is clear that it can. Peter gave yesterday’s annual lecture in memory of Nicholas Hinton on the subject of improving policy making to an audience from the voluntary sector, business and the civil service. Listen to the lecture or  you can download the lecture here. (And before I forget, a big thank you to Peter for not only an excellent lecture, but a great Q&A.)

His analysis is clear: there are tangible changes that can be made to policy making that will make for more effective government. He drew on the Institute’s work, led by Jill Rutter, to reunite those involved in policymaking successes – and the common characteristics that underpin them:

  1. Understand the past and learn from failure
  2. Open up the policy process
  3. Be rigorous in analysis and use of evidence
  4. Take time and build in scope for iteration and adaptation
  5. Recognise the importance of individual leadership and strong personal relationships
  6. Create new institutions to overcome policy inertia
  7. Build a wider constituency of support.

This is all sensible stuff. And there are a number of reports out there that look specifically at how voluntary organisations can better engage in the policy process (for example, see this report on policy engagement or Marilyn Taylor’s work on public policy and communities).

But you might argue that we’ve been here before: anyone remember the Modernising Government agenda? Any number of academic papers, not to mention think tanks, identify the need for ‘radical reform of the civil service’ amidst the ongoing failure to address department silos and the need to connect local delivery with central dictat. And the lobbying bill – which Riddell roundly criticised – is a text book case of how policy making still goes wrong.

The need for radical reform is one of Whitehall’s most enduring cliches, but Riddell pointed out that such reform is in fact underway. One less noticed aspect of this is an absence of machinery of government changes (ie creating/shutting down/merging departments), a common occurrence in times past. This is an upside of the coalition, but there have been downsides, not least a move away from cross-cutting policy priorities (which, apparently, Scotland does much better).

And there is of course the continual need for better (rather than more?) dialogue with policy users and implementers – ie the voluntary sector. There’s been an awful lot of work on effective consultation over the years – I seem to remember thinking that the OECD’s guidance was very good – but it strikes me that we still struggle to get this right. Riddell’s guidance here to civil servants was short and sharp: get out there. I couldnt agree more. And I hope that NCVO can help, both as a convenor and a connector.

One final point that occurred to me. Peter began by pointing out that the Institute was established by a philanthropist, David Sainsbury. My policy team spend a lot of their time connecting up bits of government, helping to refine policy development and understand and improve impementation. So its hardly a surprise to me that philanthropy has been at the heart of making government more effective. I just wish more governments would recognise that that is what we are trying to do, and see voluntary organisations as a resource to improve the process, not delay it.

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Karl Wilding Karl Wilding served as NCVO's chief executive from September 2019 to February 2021.

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