As someone who spent over two years working as an advisor to the Welsh Government on creating the case for a new Development Bank for Wales, I know from first-hand experience that policymaking isn’t always easy.
Ministers often have very little time to examine every potential option in detail and are often reliant upon their civil servants to provide the right advice and guidance on key decisions.
In many respects, this was brought into stark focus during the Covid 19 pandemic when politicians and policymakers had to work quickly and without any prior experience to cope with a once in a lifetime event that had no prior reference points to relate to.
Some, such as former chief adviser to the Prime Minister Dominic Cummings, have suggested that the civil service simply wasn’t fit for purpose in dealing with a national emergency and needs root and branch reform to be fit for the 21st century.
Whilst the Covid-19 inquiry will no doubt shed light on how this whole process was managed, the real question remains as we come out of the pandemic namely how those in power will re-engage with major challenges such as failing hospitals, low industrial productivity, a declining social care sector, transitioning to a low carbon economy and below average educational attainment.
According to a recent report by the Institute for Government, better policy making will be key to ensuring that both national and devolved governments can make a real difference to addressing these challenges. However, as this detailed study shows, a number of problems remain in achieving this.
Firstly, the electoral cycle combined with regular cabinet reshuffles means that government tends to think in delivering short term outcomes rather than dealing with longer term priorities. Whenever a new minister comes in with a new shiny idea, then the whole focus of the department shifts immediately to dealing with the immediate impact of how to please the new incumbent rather than on effective long term policy.
Then there is the lack of policy knowledge where we still have many civil servants who are generalists in terms of policy. This is not surprising as the focus of their job is on how manage policy in general rather than on becoming experts in specific areas of policy.
They also seem to have few relationships with external experts that can provide the necessary support and when they do, there is usually little impact on actual policy from this apart from some commissioned reports that very few people end up reading.
However, the main issues remains that of implementation especially in understanding how policy will be turned into practice. Too often, the people who will be responsible for making the policy happen are not present in the room when policy decisions are made. Also, there seems to be little consultation with key stakeholders regarding those will be directly impacted by any policy decision.
So what should be done to change this situation?
According to the Institute of Government, ministers need to be held accountable for their decisions even after they have been moved elsewhere although there should also be consideration of keeping them in post long enough to effective as well as holding the Cabinet directly responsible for the quality of their decision-making.
In terms of civil service accountability, there should be a dedicated head of policy within each government department who will be responsible for the overall quality of policy advice and be responsible for any policy research commissioned.
These individuals should undertake the evaluation of policies’ success and help co-ordinate responses to cross-cutting policy problems. This should include greater use of case study examples of good and bad policy making, and the techniques that can be used to develop effective policy.
There also needs to be more balanced internal teams that include leaders, policy specialists and delivery experts and these should be complemented through more up-to-date ways in engaging directly with the key stakeholders affected by government policy.
Indeed, it is that proper level of engagement that will ensure policies are implemented properly and at the very least, there needs to be greater public transparency on how decisions are made that affect all of our lives.
Of course, as we have seen from the experiences of managing the Covid pandemic, neither ministers nor civil servants get it right all of the time. In fact, it is often more important to build consensus and compromise rather than holding out for a solution that will be unacceptable to many of those that will have to live with that decision.
However, what is probably most important is to create an environment where there is clarity not confusion about what government is trying to achieve and, more relevantly, to be open to advice that is both critical and challenging in order to improve policymaking.
Consulting with the public to merely affirm a decision that has already been taken is not only counterproductive but could have long term implications if the concerns of citizens are not taken into account.
Whilst dealing with Covid may be something that is slowly becoming less important in the in-trays of ministers, it is clear that there are too many other long standing problems that need urgent attention. Better policymaking processes within government and greater interaction with other key stakeholders should be the first step in ensuring that some progress is made on these over the next few years.