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Matthew Taylor: Politicians must be capable of poetry in office

Matthew Taylor
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The think tank director was full of enthusiasm. “Our framework for understanding what works combines the best academic research and a wealth of real world examples,” he told me as we sat in my office.

When he revealed his findings summarised in a single diagram, I didn’t know whether to cheer or sigh. On the one hand, it was hard to disagree; on the other, it was equally hard to see what this added to other similar frameworks. I was polite - enthusiastic even - but I couldn’t help recalling a cruel phrase from Basil Fawlty: “Meet my wife, specialist subject: the bleeding obvious.”

To be fair, my visitor had a neat way of expressing his conclusions and I hope they gain traction. The basics are surely right: government action, whether national or local, is most likely to succeed when certain key features are in play and aligned. Policy interventions must be well designed, robust and evidence-based; the implementation process must be effective and realistic, recognising that all change is enacted in a world of other conflicting priorities and demands; and crucially, policy goals must go with the grain of public expectations and social norms.

As I said in my RSA annual lecture, the policies that achieve a new social equilibrium are those that cement an emerging social consensus and build on civic action; think Scottish devolution, the smoking ban, or the minimum wage.

A rounded view of change is also a realistic one. Useful frameworks highlight complexity and contingency, and that good policy ideas are only part of what makes change work. But this is a harder message than the simple nostrums of New Public Management; the neoliberal approach to government that has been so dominant since the 1980s. The question is whether a more realistic and progressive way of thinking about government and social change can usefully be turned into specific and actionable advice.

One example might lie in relations between local politicians and officials. Although it varies enormously from place to place, there is frequently tension between the imperatives of technocratic, evidence-based decision-making and the political needs and personal ambitions of local politicians. Arguments are often about who determines policy and on what grounds, as if this is all that ultimately matters.

But a recurrent feature of the most convincing accounts of what works is the importance of public engagement. Politicians sometimes quote former New York governor Mario Cuomo, who said: “You campaign in poetry you govern in prose.” But if public engagement and legitimacy are an important part of policy success, we need politicians to be capable of poetry in office. Engaging political narratives are not an optional add-on to transformational change but a crucial success factor.

In these torrid times a recurrent media trope contrasts the world in which we live with what could be made possible by technological innovation. The problem is how we get from here to there. For example, most futurists of whatever political persuasion recognise that we have to intervene to make sure the world does not further split into haves and have-nots. Not only is such an outcome immoral, it undermines legitimacy and trust in politics, business and just about every other institution. But if we need a new strategy for redistribution of wealth and opportunity, the question is less what policy might deliver this (there are many available options) but how we achieve public support for actions that are bound to have losers as well as winners. This is one of the questions being considered by the RSA’s Inclusive Growth Commission, and it is also seems to be recognised in Theresa May’s Downing Street.

There is a broad consensus about what makes for successful public action. Those of us in and around public policy should focus on that agreement rather than fixate on what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences”. Robust policy, civic and stakeholder engagement, realistic implementation and crucially, strong feedback loops between them are what we need. We even have good examples of how to get change right. The success of the London Challenge school improvement programme was based on a combination of a strong strategic framework, a mobilising commitment to social justice and the scope for school leaders to shape their own improvement plans and to grasp more autonomy and status.

It’s good to be reminded of what works but if we don’t start consistently acting on it, the gap between today’s fractured society and the one we need to create for the 21st century will continue grow.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive, RSA

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