This text was specially written for Diseño Público by the english politician and intellectual Matthew Taylor. He argues that’ Beyond policy’ is an exciting and progressive new paradigm for purposive social change that is emerging. It aim is to face the complexity of public problems from a pragmatic, collaborative and innovative perspective. Here you can read our spanish translation.
‘The current policy compass is rooted in assumptions necessary half a century ago….while social and economic theory has advanced, the policy model has not.
David Colander & Roland Kupers
Across the world in very different countries facing very different problems an exciting and progressive new paradigm for purposive social change is emerging. ’Beyond policy’ has many positive things to say, but its starting point comprises a number of related critiques – some quite new, some very old – of traditional ways of thinking about social change and policy making.
One strand focuses on the problems such decision-making has with the complexity and pace of change in the modern world. For example, in their recent book ‘Complexity and the art of Public Policy’ David Colander and Roland Kupers write ‘The current policy compass is rooted in assumptions necessary half a century ago….while social and economic theory has advanced, the policy model has not. It is this standard policy compass that is increasingly derailing the policy discussion’. Old linear processes cannot cope with the ‘wicked problems’ posed by a complex world problems like tackling deep inequality and responding to climate change.
A second strand – most often applied to public service reform – argues that the relational nature of such services means that change cannot be done to people but must be continually negotiated with them, leaving as much room as possible for local discretion at the interface between public commissioner/provider and citizen/service user. The RSA identifies the key criterion for public service success as‘social productivity’; the degree to which interventions encourage and enable people better to be able to contribute to meeting their own needs.
Design thinking provides another, rather elegant, stick with which to beat traditional policy methods. Here the contrast is between the schematic, inflexible, risk averse and unresponsive methods of the policy maker versus the pragmatic, risk taking, fast learning, experimental method of the designer. Across the world governments local and national – now including that of Chile as it establishes its first policy lab are trying to bring the design perspective into decision-making.
Connected to the design critique the rise of what is sometimes referred to as ‘open’ organisations challenges many aspects of the technocratic model of expert policy makers ensconced in central or local government.. When transparency is expected and secrecy ever harder to maintain and when innovation is vital but increasingly being seen to take place at the fuzzy margins of organisations, then we are all potential policy experts.
A final stand is more ideological and idealistic. Following the civic republican tradition, beyonders pursue a model of change in which the public has the right and the responsibility to be the subject not the object. There is, for example, the distinction made many years ago by historian Peter Clarke between ‘moral’ and ‘mechanical’ traditions in the British Labour movement. The former (favoured by ‘beyonders’) is concerned with embedding progressive values in the hearts and minds of citizens who will themselves build a better society, while the latter is focused on winning power so that those in authority can mould a fairer better world according to their grand plan.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to the beyond policy paradigm is that it requires fundamental changes not just in the way we do policy, but in how we think about politics, accountability and social responsibility.
The dictionary definition of policy is: ‘a course or principle of action adopted or proposed by an organisation or individual’. So, the most obvious objection to ‘beyond policy’ is that it is, well….a policy. ‘Beyonders’ are not anarchists. The issue here is not whether people in power should make decisions; after all, it is because they are judged to be likely to make good decisions that they have been vested with authority. The differences between the ‘traditional’ and ‘beyond’ policy camps are in practice ones of degree.
Beyonders put greater emphasis on citizens not only engaging with decisions but being part of their implementation. We recognise the importance of clear and explicit goals and shared metrics, but rather than setting these in stone at the outset see them emerging from a conversation authentically led and openly convened using a new style of dispersed and shared authority.
Beyonders are likely to see civic mobilisation as preceding or possibly being an alternative to legislative policy whereas traditionalists will tend to see mobilisation as something that happens after policy has been agreed by experts. And we tend to be decentralists seeking to devolve decision-making to the level at which the most constructive and responsive discourse between decision makers and citizens can occur.
Another reasonable challenge to the new paradigm is that it can’t be equally applied to all areas of policy. When it comes, for example, to military engagement or infrastructure investment, surely we need clear decisions made at the top and then imposed regardless?
But even here the case is not clear-cut. One of the reasons we sometimes get infrastructure wrong in areas like transport and energy is that the policy making establishment (not just the law makers but those paid to advise and influence them) prefer big ticket schemes (which tend also to generate big ticket opposition) to more evolutionary, innovative or local solutions. And as the military and police know, without winning hearts and minds most martial solutions fail to sustain. The Chilean police force has, for example, investing a great deal in effective communication with citizens.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to the beyond policy paradigm is that it requires fundamental changes not just in the way we do policy, but in how we think about politics, accountability and social responsibility. The solidity of traditional policy making is contained within a wider system which cannot easily contend with the much more fluid material of ‘beyond policy’.
Reflecting the way we tend to think about the world, the beyonders’ revolution requires action on several levels. Innovation shows us a better way of making change that lasts. See for example the work of Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institute on the advances made by US metros, often based on the convening power of the city mayor. Included in the ranks of a new generation of beyond policy practitioners are community organisers, ethnographers, big data analysts and service designers – they can all tell you why traditional policy making is a problem and they rarely see it as the best way to find solutions. There are also more academics and respected former policy makers (like former Canadian cabinet secretary Jocelyne Bourgon) helping to provide conceptual clarity and professional credibility to the project.
Beyond policy is a movement in progress, but in recognising its flaws and gaps we mustn’t forget the traditional system’s glaring inadequacies or that the political class is still, on the whole, clinging tight to it.
If the problem was simply that the policies and pledges were unlikely to be enacted it would be bad enough. It is worse. Politicians feel they pay a high price for broken promises so, if elected, they demand that the machine try to ‘deliver’ regardless of whether the policy makes any sense or of any learning that points to the need to change course. The result is often distorted priorities and perverse outcomes along with gaming, demoralisation and cynicism among public servants. No chief executive of a large corporation would dream of tying themselves in detail to a plan that is supposed to last the best part of five years regardless of unpredictable events. But that is exactly what we apparently command our politicians – facing much more complex tasks and challenges – to do at each election.