When policies collide

What happens when the wishes of one minister collide with the wishes of another? What happens when the priorities of one department seem to go in the opposite direction of another? This is what the system of Cabinet Committees is set up to deal with – as well as the convention of collective responsibility for the decisions of the government of the day. It’s one of the reasons why ministers of all levels are expected to defend ALL the decisions of the government that they are part of – and if they disagree with any part strongly enough, they are expected to resign.

One of the most high profile examples of this is the tensions between universities wanting to raise money through international students along with those industries dependent on migrant labour versus the political agenda on immigration. Policies on one inevitably affect the other. At a high level, the relevant Cabinet Committee is where everything is thrashed out. That said, a huge amount of negotiation is done at various levels within the civil service before things get anywhere near that level.

On wider problems though, there is the issue of what I think of as a mix of fallacies of composition combined with broken sequencing. The Welfare Reform Bill for me is a classic case of this. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has explained its reasoning. Yet despite this, it suffered a series of defeats in the Lords (on the back of campaigning which I describe at On the Welfare Reform Bill) and chose to go through the controversial process of overturning those defeats in the Commons.

It’s understandable that any government would want to get expenditure on any large component of state spending under control. The question is how. Amongst other things, the Coalition has chosen to bring in a series of caps – whether time-limits or cash limits. The problem with arbitrary measures such as these is that they don’t always take into account of individual circumstances that might be out of the control of individuals. The big ones for me are costs of living and availability of jobs that match the skills of the workforce – assuming the jobs are there in the first place.

On the costs of living issue, one of the big problems is rent prices. This was something a number of Labour MPs picked up on in the Commons, leading to the Opposition to call for better regulation of private landlords. On the other side of the coin, some landlords groups have been saying that landlords are ‘hidden victims’ of housing benefit cuts. Thus we have a big problem that an arbitrary ‘cash cap’ won’t solve alone. It means amongst other things getting to grips with the reasons as to why rents are so unaffordable in the first place & tackling that before bringing in the arbitrary caps. What discussions have ministers had on the sequencing of their policies to ensure that negative impacts on people are minimised?

As far as problem-solving is concerned, far easier to bring in your cap than dealing with something like excessively-high rents. Why are rents so high? Lack of supply? Excess demand? What percentage of landlords are ‘buy-to-let’ landlords? Do their mortgage/loan repayments mean that they have to set high rents in order to make the repayments? How much of a profit does the lender make? How much of a profit does the previous owner or the building company make?

What I’m trying to say is that in this (and in other cases), the problem may look like it rests with one department of state, but the solution to it may rest with another. The issue of teenage pregnancies is another. Any geography student can tell you about studies linking greater women’s rights and take up of education by women to levels of fertility. It was an example raised in the corridors of Whitehall during my time there, where some said that by targeting those most at risk with programmes to keep them on in education post-16 (or encouraging young women into work) and increasing their aspirations was more likely to reduce the number of teenage pregnancies than throwing contraceptives at the target group. Yet teenage pregnancy as an issue falls within the Department of Health, even though the policy areas within the DWP and Department for Education.

There have also been problems with delivery too. The manner of the assessments, the outcome of the assessments and the number of successful appeals indicate all is not well. (See the executive summary of DWP-commissioned independent review as well as Full Fact’s analysis of ESA.) My local MP Julian Huppert received enough of a constituency caseload that he secured a meeting with one of the DWP ministers responsible. In the old days, a minister might have been able to have done something practical. Because the model of public service delivery is to outsource every other thing on the planet (it seems) the line of democratic accountability is broken. The accountability between the DWP and (in this case) ATOS is a contractual one. How good are governments at negotiating commercial contracts with private companies? Let’s not go there. (PFI, military hardware, IT contracts…exactly).

One of the things I’ve been discussing with various Whitehall people in recent times is the structure of government – and whether the current ‘departmental’ model is fit-for-purpose. The issues that I have raised in this blogpost don’t fit easily into nice neat silos. The Coalition has in part recognised this where it has ministers that are split across ministries. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw more of this – and growing ranks of civil service ‘programme teams’ made up of individuals coming together from across different  departments. You could say this is an extension of the traditional cross-Whitehall programme and project boards – my baptism of fire in my first policy job being to co-ordinate one of these. But there’s only so much you can do when you meet for a couple of hours once a month. You don’t get that ease of flow that you get if you’re all in the same place regularly. Hot-desking between departments? I can already hear people screaming about the IT-systems challenge that this would inevitably bring.

Traditional structures don’t currently allow for a real fluid and flexible level of cross-departmental working to tackle what feel like increasingly complex problems. Trying to move to such a format – with (for example) very influential senior ministers of state not attached/responsible to a particular department of state could set off more than a few turf wars. I imagine the same would be true for civil servants too. Line management vs ‘project management’ would be just one of the challenges. Then there are the ‘key stakeholders’ – the trade associations, lobbying groups, charities and political types. Who do they approach? A department of state or a nomadic programme team that doesn’t seem to have a settled place? Challenges in themselves.

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