Positive Public Policy – A New Vision for UK Government

  • Election 24

Professor Catherine Durose, University of Liverpool; Professor Sarah Ayres FAcSS, University of Bristol; Professor John Boswell FAcSS, University of Southampton; Professor Paul Cairney FAcSS, University of Stirling; Dr Ian C Elliott, University of Glasgow; Professor Matthew Flinders, University of Sheffield; Professor Steve Martin, Cardiff University; and Professor Liz Richardson, University of Manchester  

In this piece, Professor Catherine Durose, Professor Sarah Ayres FAcSS, Professor John Boswell FAcSS, Professor Paul Cairney FAcSS, Dr Ian C Elliott, Professor Matthew Flinders, Professor Steve Martin and Professor Liz Richardson discuss how Positive Public Policy (PoPP) can drive performance improvements, save money, foster early interventions, align networks, and build capacity and momentum for more effective government.

Policy takeaways:

1. A different approach to policy-making is urgently required to address the chronic problems, complex crises and emerging challenges facing the UK.

2. Positive Public Policy (PoPP) encourages learning from success and failure to inform strategic, systemic and participatory approaches to government.

3. PoPP can drive performance improvements, save money, foster early interventions, align networks, and build capacity and momentum for more effective government. But to achieve it we need to find new ways to connect researchers with policymakers and practitioners across the UK.

Traditional approaches to policymaking struggle to deal with chronic problems such as health inequalities, growing crises such as the climate emergency, and emerging issues such as advances in artificial intelligence (AI). There is widespread acknowledgement of the need to transform the inner workings of government in order to rise to these challenges. The incoming UK government will be faced with an intimidating to-do list twinned with severe pressure on public spending. However, this presents an opportunity to create a more agile, coherent, responsive and effective approach to public policy. To assist in meeting this challenge, Positive Public Policy offers a coherent vision of how to achieve this and improve real-world outcomes.

The last two decades have witnessed a prolonged permacrisis during which the UK government has bounced reactively from financial crisis and austerity, through to Brexit, COVID-19, a cost-of-living crisis and increasing evidence of falling levels of public trust in politicians and in politics, matched by rising and increasingly concerning levels of anti-political sentiment. Our policymaking has been characterised by the dominance of a narrow range of perspectives, an emphasis on short-term outcomes and the backstory of the depletion of good governance. A limited form of Westminster-style democratic accountability continues to skew policy attention and resources to short-term and centralised approaches which have starkly revealed that what makes for ‘good’ politics, often fails to produce good policymaking.

Yet, there is shared recognition that business-as-usual in policy and policymaking is insufficient in a context of intense inequality, radical uncertainty, complexity and heightened polarisation. Further, there is a need to boost strategic policymaking capacity in order to live up to = the principles of effective government including the importance of being responsible and accountable, future-oriented, preventative, decentralised, co-productive, integrated, evidence-informed and equitable. The UK government recognised this in the Declaration on Government Reform published in July 2021. The General Election potentially offers a window of opportunity for meaningful change, but also a context of real challenge. So how can positive change be facilitated?

Effective government may be understood as a ‘magical’ concept: common sense enough to achieve political support, but evading a clear sense of how it can be achieved. It is rare to find a coherent account of how government can manage competing drivers. For example, governments centralise to avoid postcode lotteries, but decentralise to reflect local circumstances; they seek integration and coherence but create policy from within departmental ‘silos’. Reformers face significant obstacles. Policymakers frequently operate in complex systems, are constrained by a lack of resources and, are regularly blindsided by events, the electoral cycle, media stance or party politics. It is not possible to simply pull levers to make reforms happen. Add this to a sense that political capital is required across a range of priorities, and it is clear why simply muddling through becomes the default.

However, a different way of thinking about a ‘magical’ concept is that it provides an important port in a storm, an ideal to aspire to, and is useful in navigating challenging environments. In this sense, ‘effective government’ becomes a useful aspiration. But how can we achieve it? Aligning with the growing ‘Positive Public Policy’ (PoPP) movement, we challenge the assumption that public policy is doomed to fail and instead focus attention on learning from both failed and successful public policy. In doing so, we want to point to change and offer ways to learn from and share lessons of experiences from the past and other contexts.

PoPP embraces a range of approaches aiming to facilitate effective government and policymaking. Some are relatively new while others have been discussed and studied for decades without realising their full potential. These include the concept of the strategic state, systems-thinking, place-based approaches, evidence-informed government, public participation, and behavioural public policy.  What connects these approaches is (i) an appreciation of the complexity and inter-connected nature of policy contexts, (ii) a belief in the capacity of collective action to address shared challenges, and (iii) a commitment to the collection, synthesis and application of different forms of knowledge. Each has been tested and is underpinned by an accumulation of evidence – including, good practice, frameworks, case studies, and policy learning – and together they provide a coherent reform agenda and a fresh portfolio of ways of designing and delivering high-performing public policy.

Years of instability in UK government have eroded underlying capacity for reform. The General Election will be conducted against the backdrop of financial stress across government, and no reform is cost-free. Will an incoming government give priority to getting its own house in order? And taking the leap of faith reform requires? Positive Public Policy embodies the vision of real change to drive change to address the significant social, economic and environmental challenges we face. It provides a range of approaches, tools and methods for designing and delivering effective public policy, and the clear, coherent and sustainable story of reform required to lower barriers to change and to leveraging resources.

What we need is the political will and sustained capacity to trial and test the insights of Positive Public Policy in a UK context, and this in turn calls for investment in connective and catalysing engagement opportunities between researchers and policymakers. There’s an urgent need to connect the positive public policy academic community with practitioners at scale in order to help constitute the policymaking tools that governments can use as they grapple with the ‘art of the possible’ to translate lofty ideals into practices that might work in their own context. Now is the time to attract and devote resources towards trialling, tracking and evaluating experimentation in more future-oriented, holistic, and more participatory approaches to government.

About the authors

Catherine Durose is Professor of Public Policy, and Co-Director of the Heseltine Institute for Public Policy, Practice and Place at the University of Liverpool. She is recognised as a leading expert on urban governance and public policy, with a particular focus on how citizens and communities can engage in the policy and decision-making that affects their everyday lives.

Sarah Ayres is Professor of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Bristol. Sarah’s work has explored the complexities of devolution and city governance by exploring the inter-play between formal and informal structures, processes and outcomes. Her research has provided critical insights into how ‘informal’ decision making, i.e. what happens behind closed doors between political elites, has shaped devolution in the UK. This research has made a distinctive contribution by examining the impact of so-called ‘informal governance’ on different aspects of mainstream governance theory, including political innovation, democracy, policy effectiveness and the creation of public value.

John Boswell is Professor of Politics at the University of Southampton. His research and teaching are in democratic governance, public policy and public administration, and he is one of the co-directors of the Centre for the South, a regional policy think tank. His interests centre around contemporary issues and themes in democratic governance and public policy, with his research being generally qualitative and interpretive in nature.

Paul Cairney is Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of Stirling. He is a specialist in British politics and public policy, often focusing on the ways in which policy studies can explain the use of evidence in politics and policy, and how policymakers translate broad long term aims into evidence-informed objectives (for example, The Politics of Evidence-Based Policymaking, 2016).

Ian C Elliott is Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and Administration at the Centre for Public Policy at the University of Glasgow and the Co-Editor-in-Chief of Public Administration and Development. His research includes work on strategy in government, public leadership and organisational change.

Matthew Flinders is Professor of Politics and the Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre at the University of Sheffield. He is also Vice-President of the Political Studies Association and Chair of the Universities Policy Engagement Network. A former ESRC board member, he led the 2020 national review of research leadership – Fit for the Future – and is currently working with UKRI in relation to talent management and research culture investments. A former special advisor in both the House of Lords and House of Commons, he specialises in theoretically informed policy-relevant research and is a former ESRC National Impact Champion.

Steve Martin is Professor of Public Policy and Management at Cardiff University and Director of the Wales Centre for Public Policy. Prior to his current role he founded and directed the Centre for Local & Regional Government Research at Cardiff. Steve’s research focuses on evidence-informed policy, local government policy and public service improvement. He chaired the UK Government’s Expert Panel on Local Government and has acted as an adviser to the European Commission, UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments.

Liz Richardson is Professor of Public Administration at the University of Manchester. Her research interests include participatory urban governance; local politics and local government; public services; and public policy.  She has an interest in methodological innovation including participatory research approaches, and experimental methods.

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