Comment Blog 20 June, 2018

Smarter policy across government

Last week marked the beginning of Reform’s series on Smarter Working within the Civil Service. A central theme of this series is how to improve the development and delivery of effective policies. Reflecting on his first impression of the Civil Service after being appointed Chief Executive, John Manzoni argued that by 2015, it had “evolved to focus mainly on policy-making” and, although this is important, “we had lost much of our capability to implement and deliver policies and services.” For Manzoni, policymaking and policy implementation should go hand-in-hand.

As such, Manzoni set out a programme to increase the number of civil servants with delivery skills, develop functional leadership that can manage change, build a well-developed performance management culture and support experienced leaders. Among other achievements, the Civil Service has created dozens of professional networks that connect civil servants across government, such as the Operational Delivery Profession. As Manzoni argues, however, “there’s more to do”.

Space to test policy and embrace failure is important. Among the world’s most successful companies, this is a well-versed path. The Pippin, a game console created by Apple, is one high-profile example. Launched in 1995 with high hopes, the console only sold 42,000 units and was discontinued the following year. The Pippin’s failure led Apple to shift focus away from gaming and back to computing – a move that contributed to Apple’s subsequent success. Learning from failure was a key part of the process.

The success of a government, however, is often determined by the success of its policies. As public expectations of services continue to rise, admitting failure can be challenging. During his tenure as Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude argued that civil servants can often be too wary of admitting failure – to the detriment of reform. Maude introduced the “Innovation Award”, which aimed to reward people who had tried something new that didn’t work, stopped doing it and learnt from the experience. By failing small, and failing fast, the Civil Service can learn from mistakes and develop successful policies.

Sharing examples of successes and failures across departments can improve the development and implementation of policy. The introduction of Policy Lab in 2014, a recommendation from the Civil Service Reform Plan, shows an impetus within Government to share knowledge and practices for policymaking. The Policy Lab is influenced by Denmark’s MindLab and aims to create more open and collaborative approaches to policymaking. Dr Andrea Siodmok, Head of PolicyLab, has argued that its aim is “identifying best practice, wherever it exists, and then sharing those lessons across the system more broadly.”

PolicyLab has worked on a project between the Home Office and Surrey and Sussex police forces that examined how crime was reported after the introduction of new digital technologies. The project highlight that forces could save 180,000 office hours and £.7 million a year – knowledge that was subsequently passed to police forces across the country.

To implement successful policies, it helps to have the “user” in mind. In other words, it is necessary to consider how a policy is going to affect the performance of a clinician, teacher or customer service operator. In HMRC, effective engagement of staff members demonstrated that the implementation of performance management systems left officials feeling “pressured” and “frustrated”. Responding to this feedback, the Department made significant changes to its Performance Management policy between 2016-17, by making it “more straightforward and less time-consuming.” In its most recent People Survey, HMRC went up by 5 points in its support for the leadership and its ability to manage change.

Creating and delivering effective policies is a central aim of the Civil Service. Progress has been made to ensure that the link between policymaking and policy delivery improves. But there are opportunities for further improvements. By giving policymakers space to test ideas, providing apparatus to share knowledge, and engaging staff in policy creation, the Civil Service can continue to create effective and efficient policies.