Features: September 13th, 2002

Policy Making In Action

By Amanda Edwards

Reproduced by permission of the Centre for Management and Policy Studies.

The Centre for Management and Policy Studies’(CMPS) report ‘Better Policy Making’ is the most comprehensive survey that has been undertaken in the UK on policy making. It is a testimony to the creativity of today’s policy makers, and an authoritative record of the pressures and obstacles they face.

The need for change in the ways in which government policy is made – fuelled by the Government’s insistence that policies deliver better public service – is widely acknowledged in the policy making community. But the picture is not straightforward. The issues facing today’s policy makers are complex and often unpredictable – they can switch swiftly from the domestic to the international agenda, and they must harness diverse interests and work with rising expectations. Policy makers must be in touch with the effects of policy, and understand the context in which the policy has to be implemented. And all of this must be done with unprecedented speed.

These issues, plus others, are dealt with in a variety of ways in the range of case studies featured in ‘Better Policy Making’, published by CMPS in November 2001.

The most comprehensive survey on policy making that has ever been undertaken in the UK, ‘Better Policy Making’ contains 40 examples (out of a total of 130 provided) of good practice in policy making, chosen by policy makers. The report is not a comprehensive guide to good practice. Rather its intention is to inspire policy makers by highlighting a range of approaches, and through the sharing of practical lessons and experience. It also provides a snapshot of the practice of policy making at a particular point in time. As such, it explores the difficulties of changing the way policy is made and documents the very real pressures that policy makers face, as well as testifying to the creativity of some of the new approaches adopted.


Examples in ‘Better Policy Making’ show that policy makers are making the required changes, and that they are testing out solutions to some significant obstacles along the way. Policy makers are working to change a culture which can lack confidence in new approaches. They report that structure and reward systems militate against innovation, and want greater recognition for those who adopt new approaches. For example, the need for joined-up policy making is well understood, but maintaining ‘buy in’ from other Departments for whom a cross-cutting topic is not a priority is not straightforward, with difficulties compounded by differences in culture.

Time, or the lack of it, is a constant theme, with some policy makers concerned that the constraints of timescale and confidentiality militate against an inclusive policy process. They feel it can be difficult to reach consensus, and that there is a danger of consulting only with the ‘usual suspects’.

Evidence helps consensus


DTLR’s approach to home buying and selling reform surmounted problems of time and inclusiveness, and illustrates a number of the features of better policy making in action as described in the Cabinet Office report ‘Policy Making in the 21st Century’. It used evidence from the largest study ever of the current system of home buying and selling in England and Wales, sought international comparisons, ran and evaluated pilots and consulted widely (including the innovative use of citizen’s workshops to gain consumers views in low value/low demand areas). Policy makers and government research staff worked closely together, with the initiative co-ordinated by a cross-departmental ministerial team and supported by an advisory group comprising representatives from central and local government, the Consumers’ Association and the main professional bodies. Consultation was time consuming, and demanded careful management of the initiative and a clear view of the objective of the reform – a better system for the consumer. Nonetheless, the benefits are clear. The use of evidence from research, and the contacts between government and key stakeholders helped to ensure that this consensus was reached.

Respect key to inclusiveness

The Home Office

The Home Office established a taskforce involving the key non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to spearhead the preparations for the implementation of the Human Rights Act. Such early involvement and open discussion were novel and, at times, proved difficult to handle. Mutual recognition and respect for different perspectives were the keys to success, and there were considerable benefits. NGOs were kept in touch with Government thinking and Departments got better guidance and valuable insights into those areas where awareness of the Act’s implications needed to be raised. It would be wrong to pretend that a full consensus was achieved or that there were no strains, but careful handling and the investment of time enabled both sides to benefit from an open and inclusive approach.

Evaluation pays off

Crown Prosecution Service

Participation by staff implementing the policy, piloting, evaluation and customer feedback were all part of the Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) development of a new policy concerning provision of information to victims of crime. Two approaches were piloted over a 12 month period, prior to national implementation. The scheme was evaluated by a small team of members of the CPS policy directorate assisted by management consultants. Towards the end of the pilot, a firm of independent consultants carried out a victim satisfaction survey on the quality of service provided. This method of developing the policy had a number of practical results, including the provision of appropriate training for staff, the identification of additional resources necessary to implement the scheme nationally and improvements to the type of information made available to victims.

A forward and outward-looking approach

Department of Health

A willingness and confidence to try new approaches is also demonstrated in the Department of Health’s forward-looking National Beds Enquiry. The purpose of the enquiry was to determine the requirements for hospital beds over the next ten to twenty years. Four different sources of evidence were used – analysis of demand, research on expected future trends, a study of approaches and trends in other countries, and analysis of inter-health authority variations within England. The evidence collected from these four approaches was brought together into three 20 year scenarios of different possible patterns of services for older people – the major users of acute hospital beds. The Enquiry’s work resulted in a resourced commitment to a significant shift in patterns of health service delivery, particularly for older people. Their report is both forward and outward looking, with a strong evidence base, and was followed by an inclusive consultation process.

What policy makers want

The message in ‘Better Policy Making’ is clear. Policy makers want the opportunity to exchange ideas and share experience and evidence of what works in order to increase confidence in trying new ways of working. There is also support for themed seminars aimed at a wide target group of policy makers, workplace-based training, and the development of skills to make best use of evidence.

Ultimately, messages about better policy making need to be crystallised so that policy makers can apply them to their own situation and methods. With regard to good practice, there have been a number of reports – ‘Better Policy Making’ and the NAO report ‘Modern Policy Making’ to name but two – which contain important and relevant messages for policy makers. There is also academic literature and some empirical research. We must now ensure that this knowledge is disseminated and translated into practice. Dissemination must be active, making maximum use of electronic means, but also create opportunities for people to share best practice and learn from each other face-to-face.