Magazine article Public Finance

You Talkin' to Me?

Magazine article Public Finance

You Talkin' to Me?

Article excerpt

The recent fiascos over the government's 'fake' consultations - the road-pricing petition and the nuclear power policy review - have highlighted just how far Whitehall is from being able to carry out even good consultations, never mind anything more participative.

Why does this matter? Well there is the obvious objection that fake consultation has the reverse effect to that intended, by generating cynicism instead of engagement.

But it actually goes much deeper than this. Many of the problems we have to tackle in society today are the so-called 'wicked issues', that is, they represent multifaceted problems that are very difficult to unravel.

The recent spate of gun crime and the Unicef report on children both signify deep issues that are extremely complex and defy easy answers.

The traditional solutions of the Left - the state will sort it out - and of the Right - the family/market/civil society will solve it -just will not work. These are 'whole system' problems and can be solved only by involving all the elements of the appropriate systems - something Whitehall is appallingly bad at.

A recent Institute for Public Policy Research seminar on 'A smaller, more strategic, centre' focused on this issue.

The collection of former permanent secretaries, government advisers and commentators (including Sir Michael Lyons, Sir Michael Bichard and Sir Nick Montagu) was remarkably consensual - the Whitehall model is broke.

Several solutions were on offer: making the 'Whitehall village' much more permeable to the rest of the public service; rebalancing the relationship between centre and locality; and rebalancing the relationship between executive and Parliament. Genuine change probably requires all three.

My contribution to the seminar was to argue that four different types of innovation were needed: policy (at the top); organisational (in directly controlled organisations); services and systems (in the wider public domain, which includes some private and third sector organisations); and finally 'social' (in communities).

This is something the Young Foundation has recently published an interesting report about social innovation, Social Silicon Valleys.

The traditional Whitehall approach is to see innovation as a transmission belt: from policy-making down through organisations, the system and eventually to social change at the bottom.

So the knee-jerk reaction to young people shooting each other is: toughen up legislation, get the police on the case, gear up the criminal justice system and, as an afterthought, mobilise communities. …

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