Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Can We Evaluate Policy-Making?

This blog is part-inspired by a PMPA* session I attended last week, and partly because the subject has long fascinated me. The question is, can organisations evaluate and improve their policy-making functions, as distinct from the outcomes of the policies themselves?

It's all part of the cause-effect link articulated by many management models - and indeed by common sense. In order to achieve successful outcomes, we need to identify and improve the 'enabling factors' - what we do within the organisation which generates that success. For service delivery functions, these enablers are likely to include efficient processes, customer understanding, and skilled, motivated staff. But when considering the wider strategic picture, an organisation's (including government's) ability to develop effective policies also becomes a crucial factor. Doing the right things as well as doing thing right, you might say.

It is important here to distinguish between policy-making and the outcomes of that policy. These outcomes will become evident over time once the policy is implemented, assuming some realistic evaluation. But we need the evaluation of policy-making to be a predictor - if the policy fails it's too late then to ameliorate the process that created it. For such an evaluation to be meaningful we need some "proof of the pudding" before we come to the eating stage!

Poor policy decisions are not hard to find, the original Child Support Agency being a good (bad) example. In its original form, the system asked hugely complex questions of both the absent parent and 'parent with care', and relied on their cooperation in a system that benefitted neither of them. Little surprise that the system soon collapsed under its own bureaucracy, and has been extensively revised more than once since.

Good policy decisions can be harder to identify, but are generally recognised by those policies left unchallenged by successive political administrations. The use of community groups and volunteers to supplement, and sometimes replace, the role of social services might be an example. Despite the issues raised by current budget cuts, few would argue that such partnerships deliver benefits both in cost and service terms.

Between the two of course there are many grey areas inextricably linked to political belief. The coalition government's current 'Big Society' theme is based on the philosophy that the balance between public sector and third sector delivery needs to be shifted towards the latter. In such a situation there will be winners and losers, and hence many who fundamentally disagree with the strategy. But the policy development function - government's and others' ability to turn that strategy into successful outcomes - can still be evaluated separately from the philosophy itself.

So how do we do this? Essentially by learning from those previous experiences (good and bad), identifying the key components of good policy-making, and ensuring that we do these well. This is the basis of a model developed and now used by DWP, which in turn draws on Cabinet Office and National School of Government work in this area. Factors such as clear objectives, outward-looking, good analysis and excellent communications are amongst those considered, the principle being that these can be assessed either internally or via feedback from other stakeholders. And by understanding current capabilities in these areas, improvements can be identified and policy-making functions strengthened.

These models are generally good stuff, with many sound ideas embedded. But I have a caveat, something I think is missing from them, and the word I would use is Empathy. Understanding what it's like to be there, or to have this policy done to you. It's precisely why the original Child Support Agency system failed, and why poor policy decisions continue to be made. Essentially, those making or advising on policy are too remote from those on the receiving end, and don't sufficiently understand how people will react to their policies on the ground. Central government in particular has often been good at systems, less good at people.

Ultimately, this could be the make-or-break for Big Society. Assuming we understand its broad intentions, the practical policies we have seen so far are relatively small steps around encouraging more volunteers and central government "getting out of the way" in order to promote community ownership and empowerment. But so what? Society, big or otherwise, is made up of the population within that society, and can only be changed by changing 'hearts and minds' - attitudes and the way people behave every day.

Are the government's policy-makers good enough to deliver this? I leave the question for you to ponder.

Check my web site at www.real-improvement.com for more information and ideas.

*Performance Management and Policy Association, linked to CIPFA

No comments:

Post a Comment