Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by A4e (ST 09)


1.1 This formal response is submitted on behalf of A4e in relation to the Public Administration Select Committee inquiry into Government policy and the capacity for strategic thinking in Whitehall. A4e would be happy to provide further clarification on any aspects of our response, and would be willing to give oral evidence to the committee if required.

1.2 A4e is a leading public service provider, serving thousands of people across three continents. We work in partnership with governments, public sector organisations, private sector companies and voluntary and community groups to deliver a range of front line public services, including employment and welfare, training, education and money and legal advice. This submission draws on these areas of expertise in answering the questions posed by the Committee in their call for evidence.

1.3 Through our twenty years of helping to deliver Government policy on the ground, we have learnt that coherent strategic thinking is a prerequisite to good policy outcomes. As such we would join in with the consensus of the Select Committee’s previous report on this issue that a long-term strategic vision needs to guide more areas of Government policy than just issues of security. In fact we would even hazard to say that (as recent events across the MENA region have shown) foreign policy needs to retain the flexibility to be reactive, while in welfare on the other hand we are tackling long-term and foreseeable problems of social deprivation for which a proactive long-term strategy is not only necessary, but actually possible.

Executive Summary

2.1 A4e’s perspective differs from the findings of the Public Administration Committee’s previous report [“Who does UK national strategy?]1 in a number of key respects. We address this neither from the military-inspired perspective of “Grand Strategy” nor from an externally-driven agenda of strategising Britain’s place in a changing world. Our experience is at the frontline of welfare policy and provision, and perhaps it owes to this that our perceptions of how strategic thinking needs to improve tend around principles of better strategic planning from the bottom up; the bottom as in the coalface of social policy, as well as the fact that focusing on improved strategy for dealing with those in the greatest need should be the greatest priority.

2.2 Certain culture changes are necessary in order to make better decisions flow naturally from within better rationalised structures. The first report’s recommendation for the pooling of strategic expertise is a positive suggestion, but the resistance which that recommendation encountered points to the need for deeper—and cheaper—structural changes such that the pooling of expertise would not need to take the form of (what the Government response described as) an expensive bureaucratic adjunct to existing departmental structures.

2.3 The answers lie in better cooperation across government departments. Strategic cooperation is naturally very easy to wish for, but with the pooling of resources across departments—specifically, the pooling of budgets and the pooling of evidence –better strategic cooperation would be enabled to flow more naturally, allowing policymakers to better coordinate their common aims.

2.4 In this submission we return to the need for improved mechanisms for lateral cooperation rather than to the need for a distinct department of strategic thinking to join up different departmental aims. “Grand Strategy” principles are therefore at odds with our recommendations of how strategic cooperation could improve—a more useful development would be a shift towards ethnographic or qualitative data as the material for civil servants to build upon, which would help enable strategy to flow from the bottom up.

Do we in the UK have a broad enough concept of national strategy in government? Where is there a failure to be coherent?

3.1 Social policy is one important area where there is failure to be coherent, and in which a lack of coherence ends up being very costly. The most typical and egregious strategy failures occur in the formation of policy to address the needs of individuals facing multiple disadvantages. The most disadvantaged individuals have a range of needs, each of which is addressed in a piecemeal and often poorly sequenced fashion under a system in which different department personnel and budgets find themselves responsible for different aspects of that person’s welfare. One department may see the person as out of employment, one as a drug user, and one as mental health patient and so address these issues in an ad-hoc manner under that rubric, without ever addressing the needs of the individual. In a time of fiscal restraint, the money this wastes is another incentive to strategise more effectively. Attempts to make public services do more for less usually focus on process efficiencies to target “commodity” problems, like processing claim forms, bulk purchase of stationery, or efficient use of operating theatres as advocated by Sir Phillip Green. But there is a limit to how much can be saved in this way, and if the efforts of different agencies responsible for “human” problems were better coordinated there would be savings to the Treasury, as well as the more coherent and improved coordination of strategic aims.

To what extent is Government strategy based on evidence?

4.1 As it stands policies do produce evidence, but that evidence is often not given due weight. This is because of weak institutional mechanisms to ensure that future strategy takes previous evidence into account. There needs to be a concerted drive for better evidenced evidence—or more evident evidence—in order that Whitehall decision-makers can more seamlessly incorporate the lessons of past policies.

4.2 Evidence ought also to be more integrated across those departments whose provinces overlap. To overcome the silo departmental structures inherent in civil service operations, instead of isolated reports, papers and findings perhaps there could be a shared evidence bank, online and easily accessible across Whitehall.

4.3 A positive example of just such a joined up approach (or at least a very clear statement of intent) is the work stream in the Department of Work and Pensions which is bringing together very disparate kinds of evidence to assess the effectiveness of different employment programmes.2 It considers a very broad range of social impacts when evaluating their benefits; it even accounts for costs saved to the Department of Health and reductions in acquisitive crime according to a common metric. If used more widely, it could surely bring greater harmony into strategy which runs across these currently “separate” areas, and enable a more holistic perspective to drive policy.

What are the means of gathering evidence and the methods of analysis?

4.4 Having emphasised the need for better sharing of quantitative data, we also think ethnographic findings can and ought to be incorporated into the development of policy. In the last 15 years there has been a mania for evidence-based policy, but the kinds of indexes used have been mainly quantitative, and a responsive social policy needs the benefit of qualitative data as well. There have been some very worthwhile examples of involving user opinion in policy (for instance ESRO & Kent County Council’s investigation into families at risk, or the NHS patient boards), however these examples are too sparse as it stands.

4.5 Ethnography refers to the methods anthropologists use to generate rich insights into others’ experiences, in which data is collected through participation in observations, interviews, and other discussions with representatives of the social group under contention. In social policy it can be used to get a more sophisticated idea of the actual nature of the problems facing the unemployed, as well as just the solutions to the problems that policy makers have (sometimes crudely) preconceived.

4.6 In the field of social welfare policy, initiatives developed through co-design are one simple way of incorporating more ethnographic kinds of evidence into the mechanisms for strategy. Co-design is basically policy developed in conjunction with the group to whom the service would be targeted. Co-design can automatically make policy better suited to the users’ needs by involving them in the first stages of policy development.

4.7 Even if data does become more sophisticated, it bears repeating that one of the key problems with the existing treatment of evidence is that evidence is not properly shared. The final impediment to effective strategy is that evidence does not always drive action

What are the habits and culture, the institutional barriers and systemic incentives that inhibit strategic thinking or thinking systematically about the future? What are some of the longer-term institutional and organisational innovations that could be introduced?

5.1 The lack of a holistic approach to tackling issues shared between different departmental budgets and initiatives encourages a number of bad habits that impede the formation of effective strategy. One of these is cost shunting between departments, on account of the separation of budgets for strategic issues that in fact have implications across departments. Clearly if you cut the youth services budget the cost reappears in policing, however the “silos” are themselves siloed because of different responsibilities which are separated into local and national jurisdictions: if a local authority cuts care for the elderly, the cost falls eventually on the NHS.

5.2 More joined up budgets require more joined-up decision-making, and therefore act as a better platform for effective strategy. The pooling of budgets and effort to tackle shared areas of concern can reduce the current systemic incentive to leave a problem to be picked up by other departments.

Are there examples of policy-making programmes or processes that illustrate effective strategic thinking and behaviour within Whitehall?

6.1 The Social Exclusion Unit or the Social Exclusion Task Force was a good example of effective strategic thinking, built as it was on the realisation that previous efforts and funds had been wasted because of a lack of coordination, both centrally and locally. It managed to wield the concerted force of a cross departmental approach at the problems of those most in need. Sure Start, particularly in its first phase, is another example of effective strategic cooperation around a shared problem—and as an early-intervention programme, also had the benefits of tackling a problem at root, ensuring better outcomes at every stage of an individual’s life for the long-term.

How effectively does the Government assess the UK’s national interests and comparative advantages or assets, including industries as strategic assets; and how does the Government reach decisions to protect and promote them? Given the centrality of public spending restraint, how well does the Comprehensive Spending Review reflect and enhance coherent emergent strategy?

7.1 Government currently faces not only a debt problem, but a triple crunch: the budget deficit; the collapse of the public sector economy and explosion in demand for its services as a result of the recession; and a third, often overlooked category of worrying long term challenges (ageing, migration, climate change and a collapse in the engines of UK prosperity of the last thirty years). So the current situation is not just a two year problem for the Treasury but a longer-term year problem for the country.

7.2 Clearly we can’t be productive economy without making cuts and savings. However, the way the comprehensive spending review is being implemented has the potential to damage emergent strategy. If spending is cut off in salami slices, the system which served us so badly in the first place risks merely shrinking, rather than reforming itself along sounder principles in preparation for the better times which reform itself would catalyse. Policy makers ought to seize the opportunity to make a good system, rather than making a bad system smaller.

7.3 Against this backdrop, the way that social welfare reform is strategised is crucially relevant to the UK’s international position because the nation’s biggest costs emerge out of poverty and acute need. If these can be better provisioned, the UK would have more money to spend on outward-facing industries which allow it to compete internationally. Furthermore, if tackling problems at source is an acknowledged remedy for solving disadvantage more cost-effectively and comprehensively, we can extend this logic and see that raising the quality of life of those at the bottom will have knock on effects when it comes to competing at an international scale.

7.4 When it comes to an international strategy and engagement with the ascendance of the East, it makes sense to illustrate the above points by reference to changes to the higher education budget. Science spending has been protected over spending on the humanities, but that decision risks looking arbitrary if the spending that has been protected is not then linked to skills, transport and a visionary long-term growth strategy. If this spending has been protected in the service of certain economic ends, it has to be properly linked up with other aspects of that strategy. Otherwise, the spending that is protected remains in interests no less “academic” than the humanities funding that was cut, undermining the case for cutting it at the expense of other subjects’ block grants in the first place.

Who is doing the strategic thinking on the UK’s role in an uncertain 21st century? How can government bring the public into more of a conversation with policy makers?

8.1 Current impediments to good strategic thinking are frequently a result of policy-makers misunderstanding the relationship between them and the service users. That relationship ought to be thought of in more collaborative terms than is currently the case. With more structured platforms for exchange between policy makers and those at its receiving end, policy makers would benefit from a more sophisticated understanding of the actual obstacles that are to be addressed, as well as the solutions.

8.2 Policy making through co-design is one natural and very effective way to achieve this. Positive examples of user input into services are the expert patient programme in the NHS, or the redesign of Alzheimer’s services by thinkpublic, who led a series of co-design workshops which involved people living with dementia in the design of the National Dementia Strategy.

What is the role of the UK government in leading, enabling and delivering strategic thinking? Are there roles that need to be conducted by the UK government alone?

9.1 Counterintuitively, the transition from centralism to localism is an ongoing strategic ambition that highlights the need for a strong central government direction. To succeed, it requires clear support from the centre. A simple “letting go” leads to chaos and inaction in the short term. Community Budgets are a prime example of this. While on the one hand they fulfil the ideals of the pooled resources mentioned throughout this paper, their poor implementation shows the need for more coordination from central government over the transition phase.

9.2 There are lessons to be learnt here about the implementation of successful strategy. Although Community Budgets could realise the ideal of better long-term strategic planning because they pool budgets to tackle shared problems, only the outgoings and not the savings are currently looking to be shared and so there is therefore not a systemic incentive to contribute. Ultimately, the strategic direction given to Community Budgets is a push and not a pull. A stronger direction for localism should come not in the form of an order to contribute, but in the nurturing of a system of shared savings in order to make the longer-term benefits of a changed system more apparent.

Should the Government enable cities and regions, businesses and civil society, diaspora and social movements, and mutuals to play a greater role in making, shaping and delivering policy?

10.1 For cities or regions at least there is a clear argument for a role in strategic direction. Not as a replacement of the current thematic division of policy areas by departments, but as a supplementary consideration or basis for cooperation. It is easy to predict what happens in the absence of proper cooperation: a Science Park alone cannot form the instant solution to local growth and regeneration unless it is planned in conjunction with transport services, schools, careers services, and numerous other budgets that are outside of the normal consideration of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

What are the skills that the Civil Service need to develop to build on existing strategic capacity?

11.1 In addition to existing departmental specialisms, if the Civil Service is to adapt to accommodate a greater voice for citizens’ own expertises then the sort of skills needed for successful government over the next decade will be administrative as much as disciplinary. Design thinking, systems thinking, ethnographic techniques, behavioural economics, expert commissioning, an ability to scale, market regulation, and an understanding of developments in behavioural psychology could all become essential. We will need Civil Servants in Whitehall who are not just knowledgeable about one area, but are able to apply best practice across different issues of policy.

October 2011



Prepared 20th April 2012