#1: Policy should and could be better

Michael Harris /   June 6, 2012 at 8:31 PM 2,992 views

New approach

This is the first in a series of posts on ‘Ten reasons why we need a new approach to developing social policy’, originally published in 2012. The second post can be found here. In the posts, we argue that social policy should be developed by and with the people who use and provide public and voluntary services. We’ll re-publish the whole series over the next week and a half, and we welcome your comments.

Social policy would be better researched, more credible, more reliable, and more grounded in real life if it was routinely developed by and with the people who use and provide public and voluntary services.

Six million people work in the public sector, 765,000 people work in the voluntary sector, we all use public and voluntary services, and we could all help to create better social policy – yet we are a largely neglected resource when it comes to policy research and development.

It’s tragic that part of the dominant ideology underpinning central government’s approach to developing social policy over the past 35 years or so has been to discount the views and perspectives of service providers and users as ‘interested parties’, when this is precisely what makes them so valuable for policy development. Instead we have social policy researched and developed by a relatively small coterie of people and organisations.

Too often the result is policy that is poorly evidenced, badly designed and difficult if not impossible to implement. This is the ‘blueprint approach‘ to policy which makes for slick policy unit and consultancy slide decks but doesn’t reflect what actually happens when policy meets practice. As a result of policy failure (or under-achievement), we lurch from one hoped-for ‘magic bullet‘ to the next but seem to accumulate little wisdom along the way.

Take the history of populist ‘anti-social behaviour’ initiatives often aimed at young people – from ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders) and ABCs (Acceptable Behaviour Contracts), CRASBOs (criminal ABSOs), dispersal orders, fixed penalty notices, parenting classes et al., to the new Criminal Behaviour Orders and Crime Prevention Injunctions, family intervention programmes, and fines and benefit reductions for parents as punishment for their children’s truancy from school or bad behaviour (one of those bad policy ideas that just won’t die).

The practitioners and the people targeted by these policies could have told policymakers why many of these interventions wouldn’t work as intended (and why their replacements are also likely to struggle without better research, design, development and implementation) – but of course they weren’t asked (or weren’t listened to).

With an ageing population, increasing obesity, rising unemployment, deepening poverty – but “no money” – there’s never been a more important time to develop better social policy, but we’re not going to do it like this. Instead of seeming to believe that not listening to frontline workers is somehow a badge of political principle, we need to start listening to and involving the people at the frontline, both service providers and the public.

This isn’t about basing policy on a collection of ‘anecdotes’ (although if it was, this wouldn’t be much different from what has informed many existing policies, including some of the initiatives noted above). Rather, it’s about drawing on the practical insight and inspiration, expertise and experience, data as well as personal stories, of the people who work within and encounter services everyday.

Nor is it about replacing academic research and evidence. Rather, frontline expertise and experience represents a distinctive and valuable type of evidence which doesn’t inform policy research and development at the moment but has to if we want better and more cost-effective public services.

In effect, we need to reverse the order in which policy is often made – by starting with knowledge and insight gleaned from the frontline of services, then transmitting this back up through the system and into policymaking. This would be a less partisan, more authentic, and more inclusive approach to policy research and development. It would make for better policy.

We know that service providers, from local government to voluntary sector organisations, often have the policy skills but can lack the means to engage frontline expertise, experience and insight. Meanwhile, frontline practitioners and users have the expertise, experience and insight but largely lack the ability to inform policy. What we need is a meeting place for these parties to work together to improve social policy for the better.

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