Making Progress in Complex Policy Environments

by Oliver Standing

May 17, 2023

Curious about how systemic approaches can enable real progress in public policymaking in complex environments? On Thursday 4 May 2023, the School of System Change and Oliver Standing (that’s me; a proud alum of the School) co-hosted a webinar to explore this topic, featuring experienced speakers James Plunkett, Janet Hughes, and Jeffrey Allen sharing their experiences of real-life projects and policy areas. Read on for my reflections about the importance of understanding the development of policy in its historical context, citizen-centred policy design, and of cultivating alliances of determined changemakers to usher in better, more humane systems.

About the speakers

Oliver Standing (UK) is an alum of Basecamp for Health System Transformation, a transformative 6-month learning journey into the foundations of systems change practice by the School of System Change in partnership with the Johnson & Johnson Foundation, and is Director of Communication and External Affairs at Humankind — a national drug and alcohol support charity.

Keep in touch with Oliver on Twitter and LinkedIn. Read about Oliver’s systems learning experience with the School of System Change.

James Plunkett (UK) is Group Chief Practices Offer at Nesta. He was previously Executive Director of advice and advocacy at Citizens Advice, Policy Director at the Resolution Foundation, a policy advisor in the Cabinet Office and No 10, and has written a book — End Stateabout the challenges facing policymakers in the 21st century. View James’ slides.

Keep in touch with James on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Janet Hughes (UK) is a civil servant. She is Programme Director of future farming and the countryside programme at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and previously worked at the Government Digital Service (GDS).

Keep in touch with Janet on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Jeffrey Allen (UK) is Lead Service Designer at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). He has written and thought widely about how systems thinking and design thinking approaches can support better policy-making. View Jeffrey’s slides.

Keep in touch with Jeffrey on Twitter and LinkedIn.

My reflections as webinar convener

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme”

It was clear from all the speakers that we need to consider the development of policy within its historical context to better understand the present. There is a reason that our civil service is brilliant at some things and chronically poor at others. There are lessons from the Great Stink which can perhaps help us understand some of our current political challenges, as James explained during his talk.

“The Silent Highwayman” (1858). Death rows on the Thames, claiming the lives of victims who have not paid to have the river cleaned up. Source: Cartoon from Punch Magazine

By looking for patterns we can locate current efforts on spectrums of progress and evolution. We can avoid — or at least be alert to — the results of perverse incentives. We can cultivate epistemic humility. We can gain inspiration and find warnings. Perhaps we can find the inflection points which demand a move from the incremental to the transformational approach.

As Labour PM Harold Wilson said, “The main essentials of a successful prime minister are sleep and a sense of history.”

History contains many partial truths which can be pieced together to form a composite vision of the present. Policy cycles return not through the perfect geometry of the circle but that of the corkscrew.

Once you spot these patterns of recycling and re-emergence, it’s easy to sneer at the hubris of the policymaker launching their new initiative (strangely similar to parallel efforts a decade earlier under the now opposition party) with the firm belief that finally, finally, as a society we have cracked this problem. We must avoid this cynicism becoming a reflex. Policymakers are doomed to attempt the invention of better futures haunted by the ghosts of failed pasts. Some ghosts must be heeded. The past will teach us if we’d only listen.

Citizen-centred design

I’m sure it’s the easiest thing in the world for policymakers to forget that their Whitehall conversations happen, ultimately, to increase the health and happiness of their fellow citizens. What is decided during those conversations may change the lives of thousands of people in small or large ways. But it was clear from the presentations that a laser-like focus on the needs of ‘end users’ is not yet standard, and that process, precedent, small and big P politics, cultural norms and ego can all get in the way.

James shared the example of the British Gauge War in which an unregulated market led to brilliant industrial innovation and thousands of miles of new railway track; but also to a hopeless systems failure for passengers. Janet explained how easy it is to be insulated from the needs of those we serve, with the civil service now expert in ‘engagement’ with trade bodies, advocacy organisations and pressure groups but sometimes lacking the courage or skills to speak directly to the end user, the citizen. And Jeff talked us through how the decisions made by policymakers have unintentionally set up a complex justice system which feels fractured and at times inhumane for people visiting loved ones in prison.

Graphic shared by Jeffrey.

Some of this is about scale. As British economist and Liberal politician William Beveridge said, “While civil servants are perfectly human, the unfortunate fact is that anything as big as the civil service, merely because of its size, tends to become inhuman”. So maybe it’s time to more closely embrace the unfiltered insight of the individual. Let’s stop reading government documents and listening to think-tank podcasts and start speaking to people whose lives have been lived within the constraints our policies create.

Alliances of determined people are needed to usher in better, more humane systems

Though it might not always feel like it, policy is about people. It exists to create and improve the systems within which we all live. And it’s developed and delivered by people too. This means massive determination is required to cultivate and nurture the necessary relationships, frame and re-frame problems for different audiences, and keep stakeholders informed and engaged.

The webinar left me with a sense of two things in yin-yang-like dynamic balance.

Firstly, the sheer slog entailed by this kind of work. There is no silver bullet, no single doctrine, no one method, no sacred text. There’s just the endless graft of getting things right and wrong in turn, using systems of learning to refine and improve, building relationships with ministers who can change at the whim of the PM, experimenting with new methods and a million other things. It’s literally endless.

But the counterpoint to that was hope, brought by the knowledge that there are smart and committed people out there doing that hard work, and doing the right thing by making policy more person centred and responsive. Their work has certainly inspired me to keep going and, if you watched, I hope it did for you too.

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by Oliver Standing

Oliver Standing is a School of System Change alum.

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