Summer reading suggestions for successful policymakers

Martin Stanley highlights some publications that could help get ideas flowing

Photo: Clara Margais/dpa

By Martin Stanley

14 Aug 2019

Policymaking is pretty challenging at the moment, what with a new government (and Brexit), increasingly complex and expensive infrastructure projects (think Crossrail, HS2 and Heathrow’s third runway), and frequent attacks on a civil service supposedly resistant to change and uninterested in science, technology and productivity. The good news is that a great deal of help is now available and is being communicated in a much more user-friendly way.

The most obvious development, of course, is the development of the policy profession and its opportunities for learning through networking. Its basic and sound premise is that policy makers need to be able to work in teams – with experts – so as to:

  • develop and use a sound evidence base
  • plan from the outset how the policy will be delivered, and
  • understand and manage the political context. 

The development and deployment of training materials in these three key areas will have the potential to ensure consistent quality across Whitehall departments.


Separately, the NAO and others have begun to produce some very readable guidance material, full of common sense and sensible advice. I particularly like the NAO’s recent survival guide for those who might need to challenge the cost of major projects. Drawing together lessons from previous detailed NAO reports, this guide offers the refreshingly honest advice that “ministers nowadays get involved in executive decision making more often and this can confuse accountability, and lead to decisions not being sufficiently tested” and that “if a project is not realistically costed once it is in the programme it will be hard to cancel”.  Better still, the guide goes on to offer practical do’s and don’ts and useful questions to ask.

I also recommend the MoD’s ‘The Good Operation’ – a handbook for those involved in operational policy and its implementation.  It has a particularly strong post-Chilcot section containing advice on offering and receiving challenge – i.e. how best to speak truth to power. Other experts – often outside government – have also illuminated this subject, offering interesting analyses of the psychology of powerful people, and how best to speak truth in a way that ensures you will be heard.

And then, from the other side of the pond, this month saw the publication of a De-risking custom technology projects handbook which begins with the words ‘Only 13% of large government software projects are successful’, but then empowers non-technical decision makers with a basic knowledge of the fundamental principles of modern software design so that they can then ask the right questions and identify the right outcomes.

That is all very well, of course, but how will anyone find all this good advice when they need it maybe months or years from now?  The answer is that I have brought it all together in a new website – Understanding Policy Making – featuring advice from experienced policy makers as well as an online reference library containing all the documents mentioned above, and much more.

The website also recognises that many organisations outside the civil service – including large companies as well as local authorities, police forces and others – employ sophisticated policy teams and/or numerous senior execs working to adapt their organisation’s behaviour to economic, social and political developments. They seldom call themselves policy specialists, but that it what they are. They face very similar challenges to their opposite numbers in government, and I hope that the new site will help us learn from each other.

I would of course be delighted to receive further material that colleagues believe deserving of a wider audience.

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