Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Written Evidence


Memorandum by The Centre for Sustainable Urban and Regional Futures (RG 67)

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

    . . . Effective policy making must be a learning process which involves finding out from experience what works and what does not and making sure that others can learn from it too. This means that new policies must have evaluation of their effectiveness built into them from the start . . . Professional Policy-Making for the Twenty-First Century, Cabinet Office, 1999

  1.  The key findings from this review of the Whitehall policy making process for ERAs are the different sets of expectations and experiences of the central and regional officials involved.

  2.  Central officials were focused on internal processual issues within Whitehall in order to meet the tight timetable outlined in the White Paper. The critical issue was to provide the framework for action that would lead to the establishment of ERAs.

  3.  Regional officials were attempting to anticipate what this framework for action might mean in practice in particular regional contexts.

  4.  Yet all officials agreed that the central policy making processes did not attempt to bring together the relevant departmental and regional interests to anticipate how the framework would be translated into effective action.

  5.  The work raises issues that are central for understanding the development of more effective policy making and making more successful use of regions in national policy making. While ERAs are stalled, the role of regions and how central policy in general can be improved is still very much a live issue for Whitehall.

  6.  Successful regional policy making needs to link context and interpretations to organisational cultures and proposed environmental solutions embedded in policy itself. Key to this is generating a greater understanding of expectations, degrees of ambition, drive and resistance.

  7.  The key transferable lessons from this work for the Better Policy-Making agenda concern improving understanding of context, and coherence, consistency and communication.

1.  INTRODUCTION

  1.1  The core purpose of the work upon which this submission was based was to review the process informing the establishment of Elected Regional Assemblies in order to generate knowledge and intelligence that would improve the quality and effectiveness of future central government policy making. With this in mind, this work focused on:

    —  Tracking the delivery of policy relating to ERAs.

    —  Examining the regional responses to policy.

    —  Identifying "good practice" from both central and regional perspectives.

  1.2  A total of 71 interviews were undertaken with officials in Whitehall and all the English regions. These included Whitehall officials across all the main OGDs involved in implementing ERAs as well as officials in the GOs, RDAs and RAs in all nine English regions. Particular attention was focused on the three northern regions.

  1.3  With the results of this work in mind, the remainder of the submission is divided into the following sections first the transferable lessons from the research and second the ways forward and recommendations.

2.  TRANSFERABLE LESSONS FROM THE ERA POLICY

  2.1  This section examines those lessons that arise from the research for subsequent regional policy making. We make an important distinction between frameworks "for" and "in" action.

  2.2  "Frameworks for action" refer to those understandings that can be read off from formal policy prescriptions and the intentions of policy makers in terms of how they anticipate they will transform actions at a distance in different locations. "Frameworks in action", on the other hand, are concerned with the practicalities of making policy work in particular local and regional contexts.

  2.3  A failure to understand the relationship between these two quite different frameworks leads to a significant reduction in the effectiveness and efficiency of both regional policy conception and execution.

  2.4  Past experiences of regions being seen as sites of implementation, rather than co-participants in the construction of policy, as well as its delivery, meant that the consultation process between the referendum regions and the centre was variable. Effectively—extending the analogy—the author, director, actors and audience are not sufficiently well engaged in the joint production of the play.

  2.5  Regional officials offered the view that relevant regional expertise, knowledge and intelligence could have been of significant practical value in shaping the implementation of the White Paper. But these resources were not exploited in any systematic or effective way. Most officials centrally and regionally had little knowledge of the Incorporating Regional Perspectives into Policy-Making report. A number of ways in which regional officials could have added value to the policy making process were identified.

    —  An understanding of specific regional contexts, challenges and opportunities for a national White Paper may have been identified that would have resulted in the anticipation of potential problems in the future.

    —  A capacity could have been developed to see how policies would work in practice and identify options which would have resulted in more positive outcomes.

    —  Officials could have highlighted those areas in which policy recommendations would have had different effects at a regional and sub-regional level. This, in turn, could have fed back into a more sensitive analysis of differences and similarities that would have improved overall effectiveness.

    —  The results indicated that policy gaps and areas could have been identified among those whose needs were not being met, or anticipated, by the centre.

    —  In the policy making process, regional officials could have more systematically mediated the policy with stakeholders, thereby not only enabling a greater understanding of the purpose and powers contained within the legislation, but also providing an understanding of the claims of other regional actors.

    —  GOs could have promoted even better linkages between policies across OGDs given continual contacts with different official at the centre.

  2.6  The findings on relations between central and regional perspectives led to a number of points that have a direct bearing on the effectiveness of the policy making process.

  2.7  There were widespread views by both Whitehall and regional officials that there was no single, clear agenda of regionalisation at the centre. Instead officials referred to the co-existence of multiple forms of regionalisation citing the Treasury Regional Emphasis Review and the Devolved Decision-Making Review (and a number of senior regional officials also referred to the Modern Regional Policy document). While each of these agendas had implications for central and regional officials, it was not clear how these developments where coordinated and there was little opportunity to explore the relations between them in any strategic way.

  2.8  There were strong views, centrally and in referendum regions, that developments in Chapter 2 agenda of the ERA White Paper were not widely understood amongst OGDs in Whitehall and that they had very little direct contact with regions about its implications. The regions, in turn, felt that it was not being centrally coordinated or managed.

  2.9  Central and regional officials were clear that the implementation of assemblies would have led to the development of increasingly shared roles between OGDs and ERAs and also with a restructured local government. Yet there was concern about the lack of clarity about what effective working would have meant in practice or how relations between local government, ERAs, non-referendum regions and OGDs would be managed.

3.  WAYS FORWARD FOR EFFECTIVE REGIONAL POLICY MAKING

Reconnecting Purpose, Process and Product

  3.1  What we find in the results is that considerations of process and product cannot be divorced from purpose. Quite simply, unless a policy has sufficient legitimacy attached to it, then the extent to which it is effective will be reduced as it is not perceived as making any addition to existing conditions but may, instead, actually detract from those in significant ways. The processes of enrolment and communication, and how resultant decision making is affected by those, are thus crucial to obtaining the commitment of those who are expected to deliver it in different settings. That, in turn, also provides for better dissemination to stakeholders of intentions and opportunities as those persons act as intermediaries of understanding to those who may be not only hostile, but often confused and uncertain about implications.

Developing a Shared Orientation

  3.2  A sense of provisional orientation is required for this process to be effective. Thus, a problem may arise if there is a selection of issues to be included that excludes the frame of reference of those whose actions are meant to be changed by the policy itself. In this case, an absence of such orientation, in terms of clear strategic messages from the centre that explains not only process, but also purpose, will lead to considerable degrees of uncertainty. What may be taken from this is that successful policy making links context and interpretations to the issues and opportunities that the proposed policy is intended to address and bring about. What is implied is not that context drives such considerations, but that policy is sufficiently context sensitive to work in different environments in order to be effective.

Creating a Learning Culture

  3.3  Ideally, from the policy point of view, this is about generating a learning culture. What is absent in the "official" channels of communication in the civil service is how the "informal" means and mechanisms through which policy is contested and resolved are understood and then inform practice in context according to different pressures. There was a clear tendency to see the ERA Bill as an endpoint or product, whereas experiences of devolution in other countries have emphasised the importance of viewing devolution as a process that changes over time, not an event within a particular time frame. At present, there is a limited understanding at the centre of how policy works in particular contexts and as a result, a limited effectiveness to that policy itself. Instead of addressing this, performance management measures, which carry little context sensitivity, transmit messages that bypass the necessity of understanding which is part of this process. Such an absence then rebounds on policy to challenge its process and purpose and overall effects.

Quality, Knowledge and Intelligence

  3.4  Success, derived from the lessons from this work, depends on the quality of thinking within the regions and the confidence of the policy making processes adopted at the centre. Regions need to coordinate themselves in improved ways and be proactive around inputs into policy. This is a matter of practical organisation, along with the power and responsibility to construct an orientation towards the future in order to become proactive problem solvers, not just reactive implementers. Not all regions will have the abilities and resources to achieve such changes. After all, resources are scarce and regions, if they want to take on this role, they will have to invest in their own development to improve their leadership and negotiation skills. What is required here is the tangible support of the centre and a willingness to reflect upon what implications this would have for the policy making process, accompanied by a transformation in the light of these new relations.

Cultures of Judgement

  3.5   Taking this forward meets that most intractable of issues: that is, the strong culture of upward accountability to Ministers and Parliament within the civil service. A culture of deference and risk aversion then arises which fosters a process mentality that separates frameworks for and in action. While existing structures are important for developing accountability and integration and providing orientations for career trajectories over time, greater emphasis needs to be placed on civil servants negotiating the space within the broader architecture of policy to deliver change based upon judgement within frameworks of accountability through evaluation. For instance, developing good project management skills and negotiating with Ministers on how policy drift affects delivery can be a useful means to progress change. In addition, there is a need to improve mutual understanding and open up organisational cultures between the Government Offices and the centre, as well as between OGDs and the regions. Such work should be valued highly at the centre. Learning programmes and processes to share experiences should be developed. Workshops and seminars should be promoted in the recognition that the informality that makes policy work is something valuable to be shared in developing better understanding of contexts.

4.  RECOMMENDATIONS

Improving Understanding of Context

  4.1  More effective strategic fit in policy making involves examining regional needs in relation to emerging policy priorities from the centre. This requires analysis of the tensions between vertical alignment and horizontal integration in terms of the crosscutting impact of policy and the effect of variable commitment between OGDs on the development of regional policies.

  4.2  Improved forms of communication within and between OGDs concerning policy development has regional implications. This requires the identification of officials who would be responsible for particular substantive areas of activity within and between Departments.

  4.3  Government Offices have a key role to play in coordinating regional responses to policy. This requires greater sharing of knowledge and understanding in the development of shared strategic directions and partnerships between Whitehall and with officials in the regions.

  4.4  An improved focus on generating networks and communications with the regions will enable more of the right people to be involved at the right time in policy development. This requires a commitment to building relations between Whitehall and regions that are able to construct an honest and shared understanding of what is feasible and what is desirable in policy formulation.

  4.5  Government Offices can take more active responsibilities for managing strategic fit at a regional level. This requires the coordination of input from different regional agencies, including the private and voluntary sectors, as well as negotiating between different perspectives and managing the resulting intelligence.

  4.6  Regions cannot respond to every new policy concern with equal capacity and commitment. This requires Whitehall and the regions to jointly make informed choices about which policies they are actively intending to respond to through a sustained process of mutual understanding.

Coherence, Consistency and Communication

  4.7  Close linkage between policy and evaluation needs a more in-depth understanding of the capacity of different institutions to deliver outcomes according to overarching purposes. This requires an evaluation process that asks not only how it will be known that a policy is working, but also what is the appropriate methodology for communicating that to different audiences.

  4.8  Turnover of key personnel diminishes important tacit knowledge that makes policy work in particular contexts. This requires consistency and continuity in roles and responsibilities by selecting key personnel in terms of the knowledge and capacity they possess, as well as giving consideration to the time and space needed to occupy these roles effectively.

  4.9  The evaluation function should not be developed at the end of the policy process. This requires designing evaluation into the planning phase in cooperation with key personnel at different levels to ensure that it is linked with the strategic purpose of policy.

  4.10  Restrictive time deadlines exist in uneasy tension with effective enrolment to make policy work. This requires a more systematic approach to developing networks for policy engagement that gives consideration not only to who is included and why, but also to who is excluded, why and with what effect.

  4.11  Policy making is often characterised by misalignments and duplication rather than identifying overlaps and interrelationships. This requires the development of a shared ethos in partnership with identified stakeholders with a clear set of aims that are internally coherent and externally communicated in a consistent manner.

  4.12  More effective strategic fit involves the development of a stronger foresight element in the policy making process. This requires the development of prospective techniques and processes that aid identification of the difficulties that will be faced in the process of design and implementation and anticipation of how they might be overcome.

  4.13  Establishing programmes of work outside of the normal policy process will benefit different stakeholders. This requires the development of effective and sustainable infrastructures of communication that support and enable developments over time and coordinate effectively between different policy innovations.

  Although it is relatively easy to improve the policy process from the point of view of the centre so that there is greater regional involvement, this says nothing about whether regional ideas and suggestions will be included in decisions and deliberations.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

  We would like to record our thanks to those personnel across Government Departments and the nine English regions who agreed to be interviewed for this project. Particular thanks are due to Ian Scotter and his colleagues in RAD and to Sarah Morgan for providing support during the research process. Both the Advisory Group and Professor Charlie Jeffrey gave constructive advice during the research, as did our colleagues in SURF.

ABBREVIATIONS USED IN THE SUBMISSION
DEFRADepartment for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
DTIDepartment of Trade and Industry
ERAelected regional assembly
GLAGreater London Authority
GOGovernment Office
ODPMOffice of the Deputy Prime Minister
OGDsOther Government Departments
RAregional assembly
RADRegional Assemblies Division, ODPM
RCURegional Coordination Unit
RDARegional Development Agency
WDAWelsh Development Agency





 
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