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What makes a policy success? Lessons from inside government.

Most campaigns are looking to get government policies changed, but what can we learn from those working in government about what makes a policy success? 

The Institute for Government has recently published a fantastic paper, which looks at what makes a ‘policy success’, drawing on insights from number of ‘policy reunions’ that were held with senior civil servants and government ministers involved in a range of ‘policy successes’ over the last 30 years.

These success including the introduction of the National Minimum Wage, to the Climate Change Act, and Privatisation in the 80s (I appreciate some readers wouldn’t see this as policy success!’).

The report defines a ‘policy success’ as “the most successful policies are ones which achieve or exceed their initial goals in such a way that they become embedded; able to survive a change of government; represent a starting point for subsequent policy development or remove the issue from the immediate policy agenda”.

Then sets out to identify some common factors which lie behind these successes, before providing detailed case studies for each of the issues. I’d recommend reading the paper for anyone who is interested in getting the perspective from the ‘other side of the fence’ about how ministers and civil servants perceive who successful policies come about.

For campaigners, I’ll concentrate on three of the factors that I think our noteworthy for our planning;

1 – Need for strong leadership. The paper suggests that in all of the cases they have benefited from a senior minister who has taken a personal interest in passing the legislation, in some cases staking their personal reputation on it coming about, but also having officials with credibility working on the issue.

In the case of climate change the paper cites the role that David Miliband played when he joined DEFRA and also the role of Sir David King, the Chief Scientist in highlighting that the issue was a bigger threat than terrorism.

For me this is a validation of the strategy that some campaigns use to make a particular minister a ‘champion’ for the topic, but also raise a note of caution of the difficultly of getting an issue on a ministers agenda if they’ve already decided what their priorities are going to be.

It also suggests that campaign can do more to make use of those posts within Whitehall, like the Chief Scientist, Chief Medical Officer, etc who are able to give independent advice from a position of authority within Whitehall.

2 – It takes time. Those involved in the discussions that helped to inform the paper are all quick to suggest that for most of the policy success the groundwork and ideas had taken significant amount of time to develop.

For example, the paper argues that much of the work that lead to the creation of the Low Pay Commission that brought in the minimum wage was done while the Labour Party was in opposition in the mid-90s, where some of the most contentious issues were raised and began to be addressed. This meant that when they won the 1997 election they were able to give extensive proposals to officials.

This lesson, coupled with the suggestion from some in the paper that the first year or so after an election are the critical window of opportunity, suggest that organisations that are looking to achieve policy change in the medium to long-term, perhaps because a proposal isn’t getting traction with the current government, would do well to engage in the ‘long game’ of opposition policy making.

3 – A robust evidence base – This factor is unlikely to come as a surprise to most campaigning organisations, whose campaigning is grounded in policy work, but the paper affirms the need for good evidence and analysis, but it also goes further by highlighting that the creation of an independent group/individual to look at the issue, like the Pension Commission or the Stern Report on Climate Change, were critical in providing the evidence that allowed governments to act on the issues, and providing a basis for the consensus necessary from all involved.

In the case of the Climate Change Act and the Ban on Smoking in Public Places, the paper has much to say about the important role that organisation like Friends of the Earth and Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) played in influencing the final outcome and providing ideas from outside government.

For learning from the ‘other side’ I’d strongly recommend a read of this report, as it provides some excellent challenges for the way in which we go about trying to get policies changed. If you read it, I’d welcome your comments and reflections.

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