IfG warns Theresa May has “small window” to start new policy initiatives

New report says prime minister must move quickly if she is serious about domestic policy pledges

By Jim Dunton

15 Dec 2016

Prime minister Theresa May needs to act quickly and learn lessons from her predecessors if she is to make progress with addressing social inequality and make good on her July pledge to create “a country that works for everybody”, the Institute for Government has warned.

In a new report, published jointly with social-change charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the IfG argues that May has limited time to lay the ground for the policy pledges she made when she succeeded David Cameron as prime minister.

It adds that the government’s ability to focus on domestic policy will be particularly challenging against the backdrop of Brexit and a commitment to real-terms cut of £10 billion in day-to-day government spending by 2019/20.

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Making Policy Stick: Tackling long-term challenges in government says issues such as low levels of social mobility and economic disparities between different areas of the UK cannot simply be remedied with “simple policy fixes” or well-drafted legislation. 

The report says experience from the past two decades shows that creating a special unit within government to deliver objectives, or at least appointing a “strong leader” to manage a particular agenda is a key start. 

The paper cites the Rough Sleepers Unit, led by Louise Casey, who reported straight to then-prime minister Tony Blair, as a good example of such a plan.

It also underlines the need to ensure a policy objective is capable of outliving a government or a particular champion minister, citing the example of the Office of Climate Change, created by David Miliband.

Report author and IfG programme director Emma Norris, said recent decades were littered with examples of senior politicians failing to grapple with big issues, but that progress could be made if the right start was made – even against the backdrop of managing the UK’s departure from the European Union.

“Theresa May pledged to fight the ‘burning injustice’ of social inequality. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron...they all made similar promises in their time,” she said. 

“If she wants to be the first PM to make real progress on tackling social inequality, she needs to get going.

“This is no easy task, with Brexit casting a long shadow. But this is about more than her legacy – this is about dealing with systemic issues in this country. 

“And this how she can really make policies that work for everyone.”

As well as the strong leadership and policy-longevity advice, the IfG and Joseph Rowntree’s five-point plan for May also urges clarity of focus on the specific issues to be targeted; legislating to force successors to re-engage with the issue at hand; and making better use of charity insight to achieve objectives.

The report identifies three stages for the implementation of new policy: a period of “rising salience” when political interest in a topic is has the attention of ministers; a “building blocks” phase when politicians and civil servants put policies and institutions in place to deal with target issues; and an “embedding phase” when delivery must take place, but political interest moves elsewhere.

It concludes that if May is to create a convincing approach to improving social mobility or crafting a modern industrial strategy, her government will need to get better at staying focused on delivering long-term change than her predecessors. 

“The ambition for each of these two priorities has already been stated publicly, and work has begun within Whitehall to flesh out what they will look like in practice," the report says.

“Both are therefore in the rising salience phase of strategic focus – and decisions made at this juncture will to a large extent determine their future success.”

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