Editorial: The experts tell us to listen carefully, move slowly

By chance, two service delivery heavyweights have shared a single message. Ministers and officials alike should listen up

By Matt Ross

30 Sep 2014

Victor Adebowale (pictured above right), the boss of social enterprise and service provider Turning Point, is a fan of the civil service. Slagged off and starved of funds, he says, it’s the “dog everybody wants to whip” – but it “still keeps running round that track and catching the rabbit.” 

Yet Adebowale, who’s spent 30 years providing services to government, knows the civil service also has its flaws; and one of his biggest critiques involves policy development. The “design can be too theoretical, and based on very little understanding of how people work and what happens” on the ground, he says; he calls for policymakers to tap directly into local people’s views, then test ideas in action and reproduce the effective ones. The civil service’s modus operandi of conducting central analyses and risk assessments in pursuit of a nationwide approach tends, he says, to become “devoid from learning about the practical.”

Echoes of the peer’s views can be heard in former Cabinet Office perm sec Ian Watmore’s article on delivering the Olympics. His “biggest lesson” is the “importance of getting the user community to want a project to succeed before it has happened” – and nothing attracts support like involving key players in creating the project. Watmore (pictured above left) also highlights the importance of “testing scenarios and planning contingencies”, taking the time to pilot projects and feeding that learning back as projects move forward.

All these ideas line up neatly with many coalition agendas. The open policymaking agenda is intended to involve non-government actors in design and delivery, and to collate evidence about ‘what works’ through the eponymous research centres. ‘Agile’ project management rests on incremental development, with user testing at every stage. Mutualisation tries to bring service providers closer to their users, whilst payment by results enables them to concentrate on real-world ends rather than centrally mandated means. The policy profession talks constantly about learning more effectively from the frontline. Ultimately, though, all these initiatives have not created a really substantial shift in the way that government conceives and delivers new policies: the whole is smaller than the sum of its parts.

Some of the explanations lie deep in our system. Our representative democracy gives ministers a mandate to govern, yet their beliefs often clash with messages from the frontline. And the UK is highly centralised, with many policies and delivery systems run from London – requiring a level of national standardisation and consistency that makes them unresponsive to local needs. Yet Adebowale and Watmore do pick out a number of ways to move things forward; here’s one for ministers, and one for officials.

One of the biggest factors behind the Olympics’ success, says Watmore, was the long lead time – something equally important to Adebowale’s desire to build policies from the bottom up. Here, the Major Projects Authority has a key role in checking that timescales are realistic and that managers are piloting and testing. Yet as Watmore says, “ministers are notorious for wanting projects with aggressive timescales”. The PM’s aversion to reshuffles may have minimised the political pressures, but he’s still bound by the electoral timetable; and it’s a brave official who’ll risk being labelled an “obstacle” by raising concerns about policy design in the midst of a mad rush to deliver. Ultimately, only ministers can give projects the time to succeed – perhaps by building cross-party agreement, sharing decision-making powers with a commission or regulator, or favouring consensus-building exemplar projects over big bang reforms.

There’s an obvious lesson for civil servants, too – for both Adebowale and Watmore criticise officials’ risk-aversion and their instinctive hostility to ideas that were “not invented here”. Civil servants have been wary of open policymaking, perhaps seeing it as cover for ministers’ desire to take advice elsewhere: the coalition’s eagerness to commission research outside Whitehall has not helped the agenda’s image. But policymaking is not a zero-sum game: inviting new voices into the process can bring benefits for all. At the moment departments struggle to learn from each other, let alone the rest of the public sector – which has much to teach central government – and the wider world of voluntary and private sector service providers. Civil servants need to get out more (yes, even at the price of higher travel expenses) and meet a far wider range of service users, community groups, delivery bodies and expert institutes. Those who do so always come back enriched.

Put together, these two lessons boil down to this: take the time to listen. Many ministers and senior officials will brush off such advice, which takes little account of the pressures they’re under. But the best on both sides know that whilst they must bend with these pressures, going with the flow can sweep them to disaster. Ultimately, both the political and the professional actors in government get less criticism for a slow project than a failed one; and less praise for a fast project than a successful one. So do what you can. Ultimately, it is not only in your interest, but in the public’s too.

Matt Ross is editor of Civil Service World.

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