How Whitehall can help make Theresa May's policy priorities stick

From social mobility to industrial strategy, the new prime minister must act now if she wants her big priorities to get off the ground, says the Institute for Government's Emma Norris

By Emma Norris

15 Dec 2016

Prime minister Theresa May wants her government to be defined by more than managing Brexit. She has put two ambitious long-term goals at the centre of her premiership: improving social mobility and implementing a modern industrial strategy. 

Plenty of prime ministers have come into office with good intentions and powerful rhetoric about the need for new, long-term approaches to some of our trickiest policy challenges – painfully few have been successful in creating policies that outlasted their tenure.

But it does not have to be so. New research from the Institute for Government, working in conjunction with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, unpicks the reason behind the success of several long-term policies – from international development to tackling rough sleeping and climate change – in which a new approach “stuck” for much longer.

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Our key conclusion is that launching a long-term policy needs to be thought of as a process itself, one that takes several years and which has three distinct phases, each of which requires something different from government. There is no single moment in which government can “do” a new long-term policy.

If May wants her approach on social mobility or industrial strategy to last, our work suggests the following timeline:

2017: Seize the opportunity and set direction
It is difficult for incumbent governments to launch new long-term approaches. Too often, they are moored to the established way of doing things. Instead, policies that stick are often part of a new agenda brought in during changes of government, or are the result of canny opportunism by a government that reacts to opposition campaigns. May – a new prime minister working with an old manifesto – has a more limited window for action and needs to seize the opportunity in the next few months.

“A long-term approach on social mobility, or the industrial strategy, cannot just be one more entry in the Number 10 communications grid”

In practice, that means giving a much clearer articulation of the problems she is trying to solve. During this initial phase, successful long term policies tend to narrow their focus. From 1996-1999, the government decided to focus on rough sleepers, not the wider homeless population, to place a greater emphasis on prevention, and to create a rough sleeper “count” that would provide a method and baseline for understanding the scale of the problem. For May, seizing the opportunity means defining the sub-set of issues within “industrial policy” and “social mobility” that she wants to tackle, and how she will measure progress. This process tends to take at least a year.

2018-19: Getting the right tools for the job
Once the direction is set, successful long-term policies move into the phase in which new approaches are designed. New legislation is drafted, new institutions are created – or existing ones brought in – and new policies are tested and adapted. This is a period of “creative disruption”.

In the rough sleepers policy, this “building blocks” phase covered 1999-2001. Government created a new Rough Sleepers Unit, used the new count to give it a target and used prime ministerial backing to allow it to overturn preexisting approaches. If May is to do this, then in 2018 or 2019 we would expect to see her giving political cover to civil servants and ministers – often in the form of a special unit – who have the authority to test new policy approaches and to translate her vision into a set of tangible targets.

2019-20: Embedding
But long term policies cannot always be disruptive and new. If nothing else, there is a natural half-life to prime ministerial attention – at some point policies need to become embedded in the everyday business of government.

This is the stage in which special units are disbanded, in which the government attempts to cement a new political consensus around its approach, and in which the issue slips from the prime ministerial agenda but embeds elsewhere.

But this is not about leaving the policy to slowly wither inside a government department. Instead, successfully embedded policies include mechanisms to recapture ministerial attention at key points, bouncing the issue back up the agenda. 

The Climate Change Act created a commitment to set further targets every five years – these rounds of target-setting re-engage ministers and drive a fresh wave of policy commitments, just when pre-existing policies have been worn away through attrition. A similar effect can be achieved by creating an independent watchdog whose observations force ministers to re-engage. A successfully embedded long-term policy has its own measures to stay fresh.

None of these phases can be farmed out
The key point is that May needs to engage continuously for the next four years if she is to create policies that can outlive the current political cycle. A new long-term approach on social mobility or the industrial strategy cannot just be one more entry in the Number 10 communications grid.

Providing that kind of prime ministerial attention is particularly difficult at the moment; the UK’s exit from the European Union has already prompted delays in other parts of the government’s business, and there is the extremely challenging fiscal context. But May needs to recognise that long-term policies that stick take years to launch. She needs to get a move on. 

Read the most recent articles written by Emma Norris - The year ahead: Will EMOs capture the mood of ministers this time?

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