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Policy making: not exciting, but important

There appears to be a growing dissatisfaction with the established political parties and the way we are governed. One aspect of this is the way Government policies on some important issues have not led to satisfactory outcomes. The introduction of the Universal Credit is one example; the state of the NHS is another. Policy making at the national level follows a route of legislation, regulation, budget allocations and review. It is assumed in Whitehall and Westminster that this is the best, if not the only way to do policy.

As they prepare for May’s election the parties are drawing up lists of policy proposals which they will introduce if they win. Is this always the best way to make and implement policy? Sometimes the unintended outcomes are disastrous failures. One has only to think of the poll tax; the child support agency and individual learning accounts to question whether it is. Constant top down reorganisations of education, the NHS and criminal justice system have not led to improved performance.

Policy making today is complicated by three factors: the pace of social and technological change; the complexity of the issues; and a more demanding and assertive public. So, for example, the incapacity benefits scheme broke down when claimants discovered that they could challenge the outcomes of their assessments to work and there were so many appeals that the backlog seized up the system.

Similarly the introduction of Universal Credit has faltered because the computer system required to make it work is more complex than anyone realised. Replacing carbon fuel with new sources of energy takes time to introduce and wind turbines and fracking are usually opposed by vested interests or Nimbyism. The rate of change makes planning and predictability more complex. All this provokes questions as to whether there is a better way to make and implement policy.

Advocates of increased devolution argue that regional and local government that is closer to the people would be more effective. Local people know the context in which policy is made and implemented. Local agencies are better able to form relationships in their communities and work for the common good. Their decision making process can be simpler and more responsive to change. It can draw on local networking to produce policies that have a wider support base and are less likely to provoke public dissatisfaction.

All this assumes that local policy makers are more efficient than their national counterparts which is not necessarily true. Recent experience in Tower Hamlets is a worrying example. Local Councils that have a history of one- party domination might not be as responsive to public opinion as those in which a change of majority party is always possible. The  introduction of proportional representation in local government could overcome this. From a national perspective localism may also create unacceptable inequalities. Wealthier areas may enjoy better services than run down communities.

You may not find this subject exciting but the way we are governed does matter and deserves serious thought, prayer and debate.

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