Unpicking the great mish-mash of policy wheezes

The trouble with HM Treasury is that it “is simultaneously short-termist, obsessed with controlling spending, but unable or unwilling to do anything to boost growth … fixated on ‘policy wheezes’, short-term fixes and initiatives, and over-centralised”.

And don’t take my word for it. This was the innovation thinktank Nesta’s judgement in 2014, as quoted by Duncan Brack in his essay on Greening Government in the SLF book Four Go in Search of Big Ideas.

I became fascinated by why the government machine creaks so badly, and takes such poor and contradictory decisions, during the coalition years. And particularly during period I was working for the Cabinet Office in the Treasury, on public service choice.

I came to the conclusion that the style of government we have in the UK, basically the sum total of every political fix for a couple of centuries, made it too complicated to act resolutely without risking unravelling all the previous decisions, and in unpredictable ways. But Duncan is absolutely correct that the Treasury presides over the great mish-mash of policy wheezes, the very epicentre of the damaging and central control which weighs down UK government. In fact, I remember him telling me something along these lines after his first few months as special advisor to Chris Huhne as climate change secretary during the same coalition years,

In other words, he was in a position to know. And certainly the issue of climate change and other areas of environmental degradation are not just urgent, but – if we could build regard for environmental balance into government decision-making effectively – then, as well as the other benefits, it has the potential to save a very great deal of money indeed.

Duncan’s main proposals along these lines are as follows:

  1. Set up an Office for Environmental Responsibility, modelled on the Office for Budget Responsibility, to help departments organise policy more cohoremtly.
  2. Re-launch the Round Table on Sustainable Development to operate across government, encouraging local authorities to organise a similar local vein.
  3. Start a new government Sustainable Development Service to improve professional skills across government.

It is strange when we contemplate a government capable of marking Earth Day by announcing a new runway to Heathrow Airport – proof, if we needed it, that they do not understand either climate change or sustainable development and its potential rewards. But the UK was for some time a world leader in aspects of green policy and could be again.

But Duncan is right that individuals are not enough to spread good decision-making across Whitehall. It is the cult of the maverick enthusiast, working inside the system to make things happen, has not served us well in recent years. There are reasons why so little of UK central government can take effective decisions – whether it is the implementation of universal credit or the Home Office ‘nasty’ policies – and they are structural.

It is time we changed them, and I’m very glad SLF have given Duncan Brack a platform to put forward his proposals for long term-ism.

* David Boyle is policy director of the Radix thinktank, the author of Back to the Land (and other titles) and publisher at the Real Press. https://www.therealpress.co.uk/product/special-offer-back-to-the-land/

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  • Laurence Cox 19th Jun '18 - 11:25am

    The problem with the Treasury is that because it thinks in terms of financial years, it forces all the other government departments to do the same. So, if you are working in a government department and you haven’t quite spent your budget near the end of the year, there is suddenly pressure on you to spend it (as otherwise the Treasury takes it back and gives you less next year). I have experienced this from both sides, working in companies on Government contracts and also as a Civil Servant. Most sensible companies will operate a system of accruals for monies that have been committed but which have not been spent by the end of each financial year, but this seems to be beyond the understanding of H M Treasury.

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