Policy and Governance Emerging Themes


Katie Barnes

Summary of a discussion from the Liveable Cities launch event held at the Royal Society,  7th December 2012

Multi-dimensional synthesis, not integration, as a key to reengineering policy-making

Within the sphere of policy-making and city governance, each decision made will be the result of a unique mix of imperatives (including timescales and deadlines), motivations, values, targets and stakeholders.  It would be naïve to assume that it is possible to draw all the policies affecting a city into one coherent integrated policy set.  A more pragmatic approach is to tease out the underlying values, trajectories and drivers for policy decisions, and use the common ground between them to create a holistic framework on which each policy can be hung, demonstrating synthesis whilst allowing for difference and flexibility.

It is therefore less important to ensure that all activities are aligned in terms of timescale, milestones, boundaries and parameters and more useful to ensure that the majority of activities are contributing to an overarching long term vision. The quality of this vision – and in particular, the values underlying it – is the primary tool in joined-up policy-making. 

Such an approach serves not only to relieve the administrative pressure to ‘co-ordinate’ but encourages those involved in each activity to understand the viewpoint of others, and look for opportunities to collaborate, rather than feel compelled to change other people’s minds.  Consensus may not be possible, but if the underlying vision is shared, outcomes are more likely to be acceptable to most.  An obvious challenge will be to de-couple policy-making and policy timescales from political cycles and ‘colour’ of governing bodies. More effort needs to be made to ensure that the system continues to work through periods of regime change, and that long term investment (beyond any one body’s tenure of power) is enabled.

The challenge in accepting a relatively chaotic structure is that people can – and will – self-select their involvement in projects, activities and issues.  This is to be encouraged, but a support system will need to be developed to ensure that information flows freely between groups and that collaboration is optimised.  This could be as simple as aligning as many decision cycles as possible (understanding the hierarchy and interaction of decision-making bodies) or creating a central ‘hub’ through which new projects or initiatives are screened for synergies with existing activities.  Providing support for informal networks and best practice sharing is also key.

Planning to succeed (NOT success in planning!)

The acceptance of a loosely structured synthesis of policies has clear implications on the staffing and process of policy-making and governance.  It can be reasonably asserted that the discipline has gained a reputation for being process-bound and relatively unskilled, particularly at local levels. This could be as a result of under-investment in training, or a lack of emphasis on the professional skills required to ensure success.  Whatever the cause, there is some concern that policy makers are not highly enough regarded, and that the profession does not attract enough high calibre people. As a result there is an urgent need to review the collective competence of both civil servants and elected officials to highlight areas where investment and development effort are required.

A well-designed competence review will look not only at the qualifications of those involved, but also at the type of experience they have and the overall skillset available to the organisation.  It will also investigate processes and procedures to ensure that they can combine to create true competence in achieving the stated purpose.  To ensure sustainable competence, development plans will be required – both for the organisation as a whole, and for individuals maturing within the organisation to enable career paths and succession planning.

Skills and competence notwithstanding, policies work best when they don’t get in the way of each other.  An addition or adaptation of the current system may be required to incorporate impact analysis on a regular basis – allowing for the fact that some decisions are made as a reaction to unexpected events and do not fall neatly into a planning cycle.  Indeed, some of the most far-reaching decisions can be made in the aftermath of a cataclysmic event, and decision-makers need to be ready to assess the alternatives in a considered manner.  Maintaining an up-to-date knowledge of demographics (of all types) can help to ensure that policies are fit for purpose both at the time they are made and during the whole lifetime of their impact.  A large investment, which is seemingly the only solution in the light of a ‘burning platform’ can set the future course of a city for generations to come.  A pre-considered ‘wish list’ of investments that could be made should the right opportunity arise, could provide real alternatives in such situations – alternatives that are deliberately in tune with the long term vision and not just a reaction to point-in-time imperatives, and which could combine benefits to maximise return on investment. 

Financing the future

Given the proliferation of funding bodies, income streams and initiative-driven investment, it is highly likely that cities are not achieving maximum return on their capital investment (be that in obvious financial terms, or indeed in other types of capital, such as skills or knowledge capital embedded in people).  To deliberately misquote, it is in financially straitened times that we need to think about investing smarter, not harder, and becoming more aware of the limits and fungibility of various forms of capital. 

Returning to the idea of a unifying, long term vision it is clear that this could help decision- and policy-makers to target investment in the right places, and to ensure that various forms of capital are being used (or invested) to maximise returns.  In particular, it is worth reviewing the shifting boundaries of supply and demand, with regard to services.  Applying a ‘make v buy’ lens to service provision helps local government ensure it is concentrating on matters within its own sphere of expertise and not spreading its resources too thinly in order to do a job it is not equipped to do well. 

Taking a forward-looking view into cities and their constituencies, it could be argued that now is the time to re-assess the value of services provided by the city itself, and think carefully about what citizens would choose to spend their taxes on in modern daily life.  Are they getting real value for money, or is too large a portion of tax revenue aimed at supporting outdated systems and services? Whatever the answer, it is clear that cities must live within their means, so a fundamental review of funding models is required, in order that policy decisions are supported by funding and capabilities to ensure successful outcomes (Where does the money come from? How is it used? Could it be used better?).

The concept of supporting outcomes not specifying blueprints is closely related to our initial discussion on loosely structured policy frameworks.  Because any city government is dealing with a plethora of interest groups, requirements and issues, there will always be situations in which a closely defined solution will not be acceptable to all.  In such cases it is important that everyone concerned knows where the policy needs to be followed to the letter and where flexibility or tailoring is allowable.  Concentrating on the required outcomes helps to clarify these questions, and stakeholders would do well to develop a competency in describing required outcomes rather than specifying solutions.

Building an appetite for change

Along with such clear motivations for reengineering the machinery of policy-making, it is necessary too to reflect on how individual cities can reanimate their own decision-making machines.  With the pre-requisite of a strong and long term underlying vision, it is obvious that principles, values and beliefs are of crucial importance.  These will be intrinsic to a community and are in part a reflection of that character of that community.  In more diverse cities, there may be more difference than common ground, so working together will require strong leadership and a high level of investment in communication.

Communication in this scenario is, of course, multi-dimensional – listening, not telling; seeking to understand and adapt, not to change minds or challenge principles; learning to innovate not forcing to fit. Both formal and informal networks and social groups are fundamental in espousing the requisite trust in the leadership to ‘do the right thing’.  Politics will always have a part to play in policy-making, but the system itself needs to be robust enough to resist overt pressures from any particular direction (with political or other interests).  The emphasis needs to be on providing the opportunity for fair involvement, and enabling those with smaller voices to be heard above the noise of bigger players, such that the city evolves in the interests, and with the blessing of all its citizens, not just the powerful few.  Fair process, regardless of outcome, will often see interest groups accepting policies which are at odds with their own preferences. 

All of this might seem like a tall order, but much of it is possible within current means. It may be that time needs to be made available to reflect on the machinery of governance and not just its product, but it should be relatively simple to identify quick win opportunities for saving that time within current processes.

Developing the thinking...

The above views are a synthesis of preliminary research undertaken in the Policy and Governance workstream of the Liveable Cities programme and a rich discussion held with the programme’s Expert Panellists at the Royal Society in December 2012.  As such, it reflects ‘thinking so far’ within the programme, and is a basis on which to develop further investigation. These and other policy-related themes are soon to be explored as part of the Liveable Cities first case study in Birmingham, beginning in March 2013.

As lead investigator of the Policy workstream, Professor Brian Collins is interested to hear whether these views resonate with the wider community and would be delighted to hear of other views or contributions to this fascinating debate.

Publication Date
31st of January 2013