Rebalancing Risk and Responsibility

In May 2010 the Coalition Government published the agreement on the basis of which they planned, as two parties, to govern the UK for five years. For all its complexity and diversity the Agreement could, we were told, be summed up in three words – freedom, fairness and responsibility. It is the last of those words that this paper is most concerned with, because how we distribute responsibility affects society profoundly.

This piece – which marks the start of a project that will publish its final report later in 2012 – argues that Government needs to use ‘nudge’-style policy instruments to reward individuals and communities who take responsibility for themselves. The paper looks at the relationship between the state and the individual, in three increasingly politically and socially divisive areas of policy – health, community safety and financial wellbeing. It attempts to examine how interventions designed to encourage responsibility and maintain risk at the appropriate level might work for each. It includes provocative suggestions, such as providing cash top-ups if recipients of the new Universal Credit attend the gym regularly, or abolishing savings means-testing in the welfare system to reward those who’ve taken responsible financial decisions in the past.

This is a difficult and potentially controversial policy area. But if policy makers do not to seek to rebalance risk and responsibility – so that we marry more closely the implied responsibility for certain outcomes to those that own the risks that impact upon them – then we must accept a different kind of controversy. Lowering public sympathy for the welfare system, increased disenfranchisement from local politics and governance, low savings rates and increasing resentment at ‘misuse and abuse’ of the NHS: all of these are the product of a growing disconnect between the morality of risk and responsibility and the reality of our public service provision. So, the paper concludes, inaction carries its own risks.