Is it just me, or does it feel as though public policy is getting increasingly reactive? My analysis of what is driving changing change among local government and its partners is that the drivers fall into three categories. First, there is a whole set of agendas relating to efficiency and productivity – getting more for less, essentially. The second set of agendas centre around the changing relationship between the citizen and the state – choice, personalisation, user focus, and so on. Both these categories represent the continuation of policy development that you can track back over time, often for a decade or more, as thinking and policy making has developed. There’s a third category that you might call the ‘blindsiders’ as they become agendas due to events, sometimes more or less out of the blue. This includes demographic factors such as migration or the ageing population, and realities such as the credit crunch and climate change (the two CCs), not to mention food and oil prices. I have no evidence for this, but it feels to me as if the third category is getting bigger. If policy making is getting more reactive, is this simply a return to the norm? Or perhaps this is one of those things that goes in cycles. And, if it’s true, is this a good thing or a bad thing? Instinctively, if you work on strategies, you are bound have reservations about an approach that’s more re-active than pro-active. And yet, aren’t the sort of issues contained in this category the type of issues that can engage the public in politics and decision making? As a citizen, I suspect that the effects of the credit crunch, food prices and climate change are easier to engage with, if I believe that the state can have an impact, than a ‘choice agenda’ or community empowerment as an end in itself.
A good event at the LGA tonight, which sparked lots of thoughts and reminded of several things as well. I’m going to pick on just one. It was good to meet Alexis Rowell again, who stood for election and became a councillor (in Camden) purely because of his motivation to do something about climate change. This reminded me of something I was muttering about a year or two ago – that, from now on, every council member on election should see their core duty as ensuring the future viability of the area, or somesuch wording to encompass being sustainable and addressing both the mitigation and adaptation aspects of climate change. Whether through central legislation or through action by the local government ‘family’, we need to find a way. To me, this is all part of one of my main themes, namely making sure we do not address climate change as ‘just another agenda’, competing for priority with other activities. (Not quite) in the words of Bill Shankly – it’s more fundamental than that.
I wonder whether the public sector stands to benefit in one respect at least from the economic downturn. It has arrived at a time when the public sector knows it needs to innovate like never before. Public policy agendas around efficiency have, arguably, seen all the low-hanging fruit picked. Other policy agendas (personalisation, climate change, knife crime) beg for approaches never contemplated before. Not only is the need for innovation beyond doubt, but also leading players make the right noises. Councils tell the Audit Commission that innovation is important to them and that they embrace risk. If we can overcome some of the cultural difficulties (eg – risk involves failing sometimes, and I don’t see many public sector bodies owning up to failure any time soon), there’s surely a chance here to recruit the emerging innovators and entrepreneurs to the public service cause. Not just because the conditions are becoming right in public services, but economic conditions are surely strengthening the public sector’s hand. Credit and venture capital, the essential tools of the innovator and entrepreneur in the private sector, are suddenly much harder to come by. It’s a good time to be developing the range of models for designing and delivering the public services of the future.
Whatever your views on the rights and wrongs of the UK government’s interventions over the past fortnight to shore up the financial markets and financial services, there is one thing we can all surely agree on: the government has acted very quickly and innovatively.
What has struck me is the contrast with our response to climate change. Like the financial crisis, it’s a calamity we are bringing on ourselves as a result of greet and short-sightedness. The effects will be more serious than the fallout from financial meltdown. And yet our response to climate change gets bogged down in international negotiations where looking after number one seems to be the main game, and we introduce a carbon trading scheme that, in effect, rewards polluters … Those of us who compare the threat and urgency of the problem with that faced by the UK at the end of the 1930s, and who argue for markets and systems to be geared up to deal with the threat, as happened in 1938-39, (such as Jonothan Porritt) are told that it is just not possible. But the events of the past fortnight suggest that it is.
Tens of millions of climate refugees and resource wars a decade or two in the future is, of course, a much less immediate threat than the prospect of businesses being unable to pay salaries and inter-bank lending grinding to a complete halt right now.
So it seems that the sense of urgency required to change ‘business as usual’ comes from the immediacy of the impacts, more than from their scale. Or is it to do with certainty – are there still decision-makers out there who are hoping that all those climate change scientists have got their sums wrong, or that there’s a magic technological solution just around the corner?
It would be good to end this blog with a proposed way forward, but I fear that that would mean wishing for a disaster that would change priorities overnight. Instead, I’ll point you towards the Green New Deal, which highlights the links between the financial and climate crises.