Overcoming the Barriers to Impactful Policy

On Tuesday evening, the Boston Consulting Group hosted a reception to formally launch their new Centre for Public Impact – an initiative that aims to “brings together world leaders to learn, exchange ideas and inspire each other to strengthen the public impact of their organisations”.

In many respects, it is unsurprising to see another consulting firm seeking to take a bigger stake in the public sector market; after all, in a time of ongoing austerity, the need for leaner, smarter service delivery remains paramount, and its competitors, McKinsey & Co. and the big accountants have been systematically upping their involvement in this area over recent years.

What is more unusual is that BCG has chosen to separate the Centre from the heart of its business, as a ‘BCG Trust’, presumably to create some distance from its own existing public work and also to create a safer space for public sector leaders to share ideas outside of a business environment.

The CPI appears to see itself as a mediator – a stage on which knowledge of best practice, innovation and policy ingenuity can be shared at a global level. Its primary concern is the impact of public investments, policy and legislation, which has always been important, but has become exponentially more so as resources continue to become constrained and demographic changes mean the demands for services can only grow further.

All of this plays out against a backdrop of a political culture gripping many advanced democracies in which long-term thinking – let along nation-building projects – is eschewed in favour of ‘quick wins’ in the immediate political term. This has given rise to an enormous level of risk aversion in the civil service, and a ‘commissioning’ culture, whereby studies and indeed pilots are repeatedly launched to delay or avoid decision-making.

There is no ignoring the irony that politicians’ preference for smaller-scale, popular policies at the expense of investments or interventions in more complex areas with long-term benefits has been matched by an increasing trend amongst citizens towards disengagement from the political sphere. Of course, one seeks to respond to the other, but it’s clearly not working in either respect.

Demos has been working to understand the declining levels of trust and participation in politics on a number of levels, and it is clear that there is no one-step solution. At its heart, the chasm that has grown between politicians and their constituents reflects a challenge to MPs’ legitimacy: both as leaders and policy-makers. The Government, and indeed all parties, must do more to make people feel connected, heard and represented – whether through embedding consultative mechanisms more overtly in the policy-making process, or harnessing the potential for new technologies to provide a forum of ideas, just to name a few. The shift must be fundamental, deep and enduring.

The CPI picks up on the issue of legitimacy as one of its core pillars to achieving impact, with the others being sound design and delivery. These are broad, important themes to guide the CPI’s investigations, but it is important to acknowledge just how early the obstacles to achieving success in any of these areas can begin.

The ability to access useful, meaningful data, for example, presents a particular challenge here in the UK. At Demos, our recent work on an Integration Hub mapping England’s changing diversity and social cohesion has repeatedly highlighted gaps in the way in which information on cultural and ethnic identity is collected. The major challenge stems from the fact that the Census is only conducted once a decade, which seems surely inadequate given the pace of demographic change. A second issue is revealed in the ‘White Other’ category of self-identification, which unhelpfully lumps Americans, Germans, Poles – and many other communities – together. This makes identifying the successes, specific needs and disproportionate impacts of policy decisions incredibly difficult to discern.

For this reason, it was encouraging to see Dr Silvia Montoya, the Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, at the CPI’s launch, reinforcing the importance of governments taking data collection seriously – given its potential to vastly improve people’s lives. It would be good to see the CPI taking the lead on formally championing this as an issue moving forward.

Other barriers to achieving impact are sometimes neither seen nor heard. Here in the UK, many policies that could make a real difference have been taken off the table by political leaders, and the ongoing unwillingness to explore their potential benefits artificially constrains the policy-making environment. For example, the opportunity that building on even a small section of the green belt could provide towards addressing the chronic housing crisis dogging the South-East of England. Similarly, the politicisation of the public debate around food poverty, which has meant that proposals to address the issue in a more effective, efficient and compassionate way – including Demos’ recommendations to build more community supermarkets – are obscured by bickering across the Commons around the scale of the problem.

This is why, in seeking to improve the overall impact of public policy-making, the CPI should also attempt to tackle some of the issues hampering the initial selection process of policy initiatives. Beyond this, there is also plenty of improvement to be made on the design of policies that do make it through the choice phase – not least of all, ensuring that robust evaluation principles are in place from the beginning. There are many organisations here already doing good work on these topics, not least of all the What Works Network, but the launch of the CPI certainly strengthens optimism that successes and failures in policy-making at a local level can be better connected at a global level, to prevent waste and duplication, and encourage governments to strive for ‘world-best practice’.