IPR Blog

Expert analysis, debates and comments on topical policy-relevant issues

Topic: policymaking

Spring Budget 2017: T-levels, apprenticeships and industrial strategy

📥  Economy, education, future, labour market, policymaking

Dr Felicia Fai is Senior Lecturer in Business Economics and Director of Widening Participation and Outreach at the University of Bath's School of Management

In many ways, there were no real surprises in the Spring Budget, with many of the initiatives having been announced in the Autumn Statement, which focussed more specifically on science and industry. The point of greatest novelty (although still not a complete surprise) was the focus on the longer-term future pipeline of talent in the workforce and the need to raise productivity in the UK. There is some attempt on the government’s part to more comprehensively approach the issue of the future workforce, and to provide an alternative but equally prestigious and valuable route into education and careers to the standard ‘A-level + Bachelor’s degree’ route. The government will create the ‘T-level’ for 16-19 year-olds, in which formal training hours will be increased by 50% over existing options and include a minimum 3-month placement in industry to ensure school leavers are ‘workplace ready’. This is in addition to other vocational initiatives that the previous parliament established, such as the creation of 1,000 degree apprenticeships, plus implementation of the new apprenticeship levy that will commence in April 2017. Beyond the 16-19 T-levels, loans are to be made available on a similar basis to existing support for university degrees to study at the new institutes and technical colleges the government intends to create. Further, at the highest educational levels, there is £300m funding support for 1,000 PhDs across all STEM areas.



The announcement of T-levels and a commitment to apprenticeships is welcome. The UK has long suffered from having too few clear and well-recognised (by both applicants and employers) alternative routes into skilled and high-paid work except for university degrees – and it is clear to me, as a university lecturer, that a degree structure and the forms of learning and knowledge testing used as standard forms of engagement in degree-level programmes do not suit all learners; nor is it always the most appropriate way to develop skills. As a senior admissions tutor for undergraduate programmes, I consider applications from mature applicants in their early- to mid-20s who state that, whilst they have progressed in their careers since leaving school, they now realise their ability to advance in their careers further is blocked by not having a formally recognised degree. I do wonder whether the decision to attend HE is the right one for them.

Sometimes, people are not ready emotionally or intellectually to deal with university-level education at 18, so choose not to apply for entry straight after school. Coming in later would seem appropriate, and we welcome them as they are more likely to succeed now than they would have been had they tried to come earlier. Others may have avoided university because they recognised early on that they did not want to, or were not able to, think in the particular ways in which we require students to think in order to achieve good marks in academic institutions driven by a strong research culture. For example, a recurring weakness in exam performance is the failure of students to answer the specifics of the question set – as opposed to displaying the general breadth of their knowledge – and an ability to make connections between the content they experienced on one subject and the content in the subject the specific exam is testing. The latter is looked for more generally in coursework or dissertations, but is not always appropriate in examination settings. There have been times in my career when I have seen the promise of an individual in the workplace setting and known that they will be a truly amazing employee, manager or future leader precisely because of their ability to see the ‘bigger picture’; yet, in the classroom and in written coursework and exams, they do not reveal the academic skills and precision that would get them the marks which signal their potential. Being ‘book smart’ is different to ‘street smart’, but our current system of HE is highly skewed towards the former.

The T-levels will offer a more streamlined pathway, with focused routes into 15 different areas, and have the potential to offer a different and equally valued and prestigious route into a career; but will their potential be realised? Leaving specific content aside, one of the key problems is the low profile, poor advertising and opacity associated with alternative routes into a career. The most well-established path is GCSEs, A-levels then university degrees. Chancellor Philip Hammond noted in his speech that 13,000 vocational and technical qualifications exist. How many of these are well-recognised and valued by HE institutions and employers? How much advice can cash-strapped schools and colleges provide on these qualifications to individuals looking for a career path that does not involve attending university for a bachelor’s degree? Arguably among the most well-established and widely recognised vocational qualifications are HNDs, NVQs and BTECs; how will these fair with the introduction of the new T-levels? Will the T-levels be a complementary or alternative offering to these existing qualifications, and, again, how will under-funded schools and FE colleges cope in terms of resourcing them? Whilst the Chancellor is keen to maintain choice, in reality will this mean cutting back on the provision of existing vocational qualifications?

Even if there could be a smooth introduction for T-levels, there is the question of how they would lead to more training and qualifications. One can envisage that T-levels could lead either directly to an apprenticeship, or to a place on one of the new degree apprenticeships that should emerge in the next few years, much like A-levels are the most commonly accepted way of accessing bachelor degree programmes. However, again, the pathway of this route is not as smooth as the one into existing degrees.

Whilst the government proudly announces its claim about 1,000 new degree apprenticeships being formed, the system that alerts people to these opportunities is hard to find and tricky to navigate. The chances of a person finding the right degree apprenticeship for them is remote – at least without a significant personal investment of time and research effort trolling through university or employer websites. The UCAS website provides basic information about apprenticeships, questions to consider and how to apply. It also lists employers with current schemes and links through to the government’s apprenticeship website – but from there the application process proceeds on a case-by-case basis because applicants are considered to be applying for jobs. Degree apprenticeships should grow quickly in the next few years, given the compulsory levy, and assessing these entirely on a case-by case basis is likely to become increasingly bureaucratic and cumbersome for both the employer and the university partner – who both need to be satisfied the applicant meets their respective requirements. The T-levels, alongside the better-recognised and better-established vocational qualifications, could be used as publicly available entry criteria by the universities providing the degree apprenticeships on the UCAS website. The applications should be made through an expanded UCAS service so that one application could be sent to multiple degree apprenticeships. From there, universities could select applicants who meet their academic requirements in a first round of consideration, and then this subset could be forwarded for consideration by the employing organisational partner in a second stage of the selection process; together, these actors could make a decision as to the suitability of the applicant. This would streamline the process for applicants, universities and employers alike, reducing the opacity and confusion of a currently complex pathway between school, post-16-19, further education, higher education and beyond.

The announcement of T-levels is an interesting proposal, and a welcome one at that – but there needs to be deeper and more systemic policy-thinking about how its introduction and implementation, as well as that of the apprenticeship levy, will lead to a greater proportion of the future workforce having the requisite skills to raise UK productivity.


Timing it wrong: Benefits, Income Tests, Overpayments and Debts

📥  employment, future, policymaking, Welfare

Professor Peter Whiteford is a Professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University and Professor Jane Millar is a member of the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) Leadership Team, in addition to her role as Professor of Social Policy at the University of Bath.

Unexpected bills can be a challenge for any household. But for people who rely on social security payments, unexpected news of a significant debt – sometimes dating back years – can be bewildering to say the least. This is exactly what tens of thousands of Australians have experienced in recent months.

Since just before Christmas, Centrelink’s use of a new automated data-matching system has resulted in a significant increase in the number of current and former welfare recipients identified as having been overpaid and, thus, being in debt to the government. The data-matching system seems to have identified people with earned income higher than the amount reported when their benefits were calculated.



Many of these people were alarmed when Centrelink contacted them about the assumed debt. Their stories have been recounted over the past two months in the mainstream media and social media. The controversy prompted the Shadow Human Services Minister Linda Burney to request an auditor-general’s investigation. After receiving more than one hundred complaints about problems with the debt-recovery process, independent MP Andrew Wilkie asked the Commonwealth Ombudsman to step in, and he has since launched an investigation. The Senate Community Affairs References Committee will also examine the new process.

This is by no means Australia’s first social security overpayment controversy. The last storm was sparked by the expansion and fine-tuning of family tax benefits in 2000. Under that new system, families were given the option of taking their payments as reductions in the income tax paid on their behalf by their employer. To ensure that this group was treated in the same way as those who received cash benefits from Centrelink, the government introduced an annual reconciliation process. Before the beginning of each financial year, families were asked to estimate what their income would be in the subsequent tax year; later, after they had filed their tax returns, an end-of-year reconciliation process would bring income and family benefits into line.

This seemed like a rational system. People who had been underpaid could receive a lump sum to ensure their correct entitlement. People who had been overpaid would pay back the money that they weren’t entitled to keep. The reconciliation would correct any mistakes people made when they estimated their income for the year ahead (not necessarily an easy task to get right!) and make the system responsive to changes in income during the year.

But many families’ estimates at the start of the year proved to be poor guides to income received during the year. This happened in both directions – some estimates were too high, some too low – but most often real annual incomes were higher than predicted. The result was a very large increase in overpayments and, thus, in debts. Before the new system was introduced, just over 50,000 families had debts at the end of each year; in the first year of the new system, an estimated 670,000 families received overpayments. Overall, around one third of eligible families incurred an overpayment in the first two years of the new system.

This is how the system was designed to work. But for the families who found themselves owing sometimes large and usually unexpected debts, the experience created confusion, stress and anger. It also generated considerable controversy in parliament and the media. So, in July 2001, just before an important by-election, the Howard government announced a waiver of the first $1,000 of all overpayments, which reduced the number of families with debts to around 200,000. Further fine-tuning came in 2002, also aimed at reducing overpayments and debts. Then, in 2004, an annual lump sum was added to family tax benefit A with the aim of offsetting any overpayments.


At around this time, Britain was designing and introducing a new system of tax credits for people in work (the working tax credit) and for families with children (the child tax credit). The system had some features in common with the Australian approach, had some features in common with the Australian approach, including an end-of–year reconciliation. The British government was keen to avoid the sort of controversy that had blown up in Australia, so it included a mechanism for changing the level of tax credit not just at the end of the year but during the year as well.

The assessment for credits was initially made on the basis of gross family income in the previous tax year. If recipients reported changes in income and circumstances during the year, then the award was adjusted, and at the end of the year total credits and income were reconciled. But many changes in income and circumstances went unreported during the year and so, in practice, considerable adjustment was required. Over the first few years of the system, about 1.9 million cases of excessive credits occurred each year.

As in Australia, the system caused significant hardship and generated adverse media coverage and much concern. In 2005 and 2006, the British government introduced a number of changes designed to reduce overpayments, including a very substantial increase in the level of the annual income “disregard” from £2,500 to £25,000. This meant that family income could rise by up to £25,000 in the current award year before tax credits were reduced. The amount has since been brought back to the original £2,500, which will probably mean overpayments will start to rise again. Processes exist for recovering overpayments of tax credits and housing benefits, and these sometimes attract some media attention, most recently in relation to the use of private debt collectors.


Together with the current Centrelink controversy, the experience of these earlier cases offers four main lessons for social security policy.

First, getting payments “right” in any means-tested system is a complex process necessarily involving trade-offs between responsiveness and simplicity. If the aim is to precisely match income and benefit in real time, then there must be constant updating and checking of income and adjustments of benefits. But such a system would be very intrusive and administratively complex. So systems are designed to pay first and reconcile later, which makes overpayments almost inevitable.

Governments can minimise the impact by disregarding some overpayments, as both Australia and Britain have done in the past. But that is not part of the design of Australia’s latest program of debt recovery. People are being chased partly because the Budget Savings (Omnibus) Act 2016 toughened repayment compliance conditions for social welfare debts. New conditions include an interest charge on the debts of former social welfare recipients who are unwilling to enter repayment arrangements, extended Departure Prohibition Orders for people who are not in repayment arrangements for their social welfare debts, and the removal of the six-year limitation on debt recovery for all social welfare debt.

People ardently dislike systems that they don’t understand and feel are unfair, or that seem to create debts beyond their control. A very stringent approach to collecting overpayments can cause real hardship and generate controversy. It has even been suggested that there may be a punitive element to this, with Centrelink staff not encouraged or required to help people to correct errors.

Second, IT systems are not by themselves the cause of these problems. It is easy to blame the technology when things go wrong, and some problematic factors do indeed appear to be technological. The names of employers provided to the Australian Tax Office and Centrelink don’t always match, for example, and it appears that in some cases the same income is counted twice because the assessment process matches names rather than Australian Business Numbers.

More significantly, Centrelink’s formula can produce false estimates of debts when individuals are asked to confirm their annual income reported to the Australian Tax Office, because it simply divides the reported annual wage by twenty-six. That overly simplified calculation will only produce a useful figure if individuals receive exactly the same income each fortnight, which is often not the case, especially for casual workers, students and other people with intermittent work patterns.

But these problems are not necessarily the fault of the IT, which is only doing what it has been designed to do. More checking by humans would probably reduce errors, but outcomes that result from the design of the policy can’t be resolved by technical fixes.

Third, IT systems are not by themselves the solution either. It is possible that the earlier problems with overpayments of family tax benefits may recur very soon. In early February, the federal government introduced a new omnibus savings bill to parliament, combining and revising several previously blocked welfare measures into a single piece of legislation in order to save nearly $4 billion over the next four years, after allowing for increased spending on childcare and family tax benefits. By far the most significant of the projected savings in the bill – $4.7 billion over four years – results from phasing out the end-of-year supplements for family tax benefit recipients, which were introduced to solve the overpayment and debt problems referred to earlier.

So why would the government think that the overpayment of family payments and the subsequent debt problem will be resolved, as this saving seems to assume? The answer is not entirely clear, but seems to relate to the update of Centrelink’s computer system announced in 2015. “The new technology to underpin the welfare system will offer better data analytics, real-time data sharing between agencies, and faster, cheaper implementation of policy changes,” Marise Payne, then human services minister, said at the time. “This means customers who fail to update their details with us will be less likely to have to repay large debts, and those who wilfully act to defraud taxpayers will be caught much more quickly.”

Complementing the Centrelink update are proposed changes in reporting systems at the Australian Tax Office, particularly the introduction of a single-touch payroll system. Under the new system, when employers pay their staff, the employees’ salary or wages and PAYG withholding amounts will automatically be reported to the Tax Office, which can then share this data with Centrelink.

The government seems to be assuming that computer and system updates will provide a technological fix to the problem of family tax benefit overpayments – and thus deliver a saving of $4.7 billion over the next four years. But what if the new IT systems don’t work in the ways envisaged? The Australian Tax Office’s computer system has crashed a number of times over the past year. Indeed, in the very same week that the government introduced the new omnibus savings bill, newspaper reports of this “tech wreck” suggested that the Tax Office might not be able to guarantee this year’s lodgement of returns in time for the start of the new financial year. The reports also noted that the development of the single-touch payroll system would remain one of the Tax Office’s priorities for this year.

Finally, to reiterate our first point, these problems have arisen from policy choices and design. Britain is introducing a new system, Universal Credit, which will use real-time adjustments to track changes in earnings and seek to match awards to income on a monthly basis. How well this will work in practice remains to be seen. In both countries, trends towards more insecure and variable employment patterns – and hence irregular pay packets – will make balancing accuracy and timeliness in means-tested welfare benefits more difficult. The assumption of regular and unchanging income no longer holds, and this new reality requires a policy, not a technical, solution.

This piece originally appeared on INSIDE STORY.


Shifting the public conversation on mental health – understanding the social conditions that shape private troubles

📥  health, policymaking

Professor Simone Fullagar is Professor of Sport and Physical Cultural Studies in the University of Bath's Department for Health

Mental health professionals, NGOs and a variety of service-user groups have all called for greater funding for local and global mental health services, as well as for greater parity of esteem between these services and broader health policy and service provision in the UK. The Mental Health Taskforce’s 2016 report details the need to address chronic under-spending on mental health services in the UK as demand continues to increase and inequalities widen. NHS spending is increasing in areas that support a medicalised response to mental health issues, with prescriptions for antidepressant medication doubling over the last decade in the UK. The taskforce’s report recommends a billion-pound investment in 2020/21 and calls for fresh thinking to shift cultural attitudes that stigmatise mental ill health as an individualised problem. Recently Theresa May announced a review of child and adolescent services in England and Wales and investment in mental health first aid training for schools. This is an important step, but how far will it go, given that from 2010 to 2015 there was a reduction of 5.4% in the funding of child and adolescent mental health services in the UK?



Young people are a major focus of concern, as they suffer from high rates of depression, anxiety, eating disorders and are vulnerable to developing more severe and enduring conditions. National survey data indicates a worsening picture for young women (15-18), who have the highest rates of depression and anxiety in the UK. Suicide rates have increased, with young men experiencing higher rates of suicide than young women, who in turn have higher rates of hospital admission for self-harm. One in four (26%) women aged 16 to 24 identify as having anxiety, depression, panic disorder, phobia or obsessive compulsive disorder.

The case for greater funding for mental health services is supported by a growing body of evidence which points to the value of investing in appropriate support and early intervention. Recent psychological research in the UK identified how different therapeutic approaches (cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and psychosocial interventions) for adolescent depression have been found to have similar beneficial effects. Across different approaches there is a common thread emphasising the importance of developing a ‘therapeutic alliance’ with a young person so they are able to effectively engage with support (feeling heard and respected, avoiding further stigmatisation, being involved in coproducing services, etc). This question of what works best for young people with a range of needs and diverse social backgrounds is an important one, given the role of the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme in increasing access to psychological therapy via CBT as a technical formula. Research has identified that 40–60% of young people who start psychological treatment also drop out against advice. A high proportion of people also do not seek help from professionals despite the recurrence of common mental health issues. All these factors point to the complexities surrounding clinical and community-based mental health provision. A positive shift in recent years has been an increasing recognition of the importance of involving people with lived experiences in the coproduction of localised services that move beyond privileging biomedical treatments, and support a recovery-oriented approach (for example, the Wellbeing College for adults has been created in Bath).

While this focus on funding more personalised support is incredibly important for people experiencing all kinds of distress, we also need broader public conversations and policy approaches that offer a critical understanding of how private troubles connect with our public lives to acknowledge the social determinants of mental health. Mental health problems are associated with social injustice, marginalisation and the embodied distress of trauma – poverty, discrimination (class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity etc), poor housing, unemployment, social isolation, gender-based violence, childhood abuse and intensified bullying in the digital age. In the context of austerity measures and cuts to public funding across a range of areas, it is perhaps not surprising that private troubles and social suffering are exacerbated.

Mental health and illness are also highly contested concepts with diverse, and often competing, trajectories of thought about biopsychosocial causes and conceptualisations of distress. Public knowledge of ‘mental illness’ is historically shaped by our diagnostic cultures of psy-expertise (from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to digital self-assessments), the rise of brain science and research funded by Big Pharma, and the less-often-heard accounts of those with lived experiences (including a diverse range of identities – service users, consumers, and members of anti-psychiatry, hearing voices and mad pride movements). While there is often great media interest in studies claiming to identify the biological cause of problems in the brain (often visualised via high tech images), many people would be surprised to know that there are no specific biomarkers for ‘mental illness’ – and theories about why anti-depressant medication works for some people (and with similar effects to placebo and other non-pharmacological treatments), are based on hypothesis rather than fact.

If we look at the national data cited earlier we can see how gender figures as an important variable – yet there is a curious absence of gender analysis in the context of mental health policy and service provision despite the growing research in this area.  My own sociological research into women’s experiences of depression and recovery identified the often highly problematic effects of antidepressant medication that was prescribed to help them recover. Women spoke of how their embodied distress was heightened by side-effects, and how feelings of emotional numbness exacerbated their sense of ‘failing’ to recover despite following expert biomedical advice. Suicidal thoughts and attempts were evident alongside guilt about not living up to the normative ‘good woman ideals’ of self-sacrificing mother, productive worker or caring wife. Others identified a feeling of being paradoxically trapped in a sense of dependency on a drug that helped them to feel more ‘normal’ and thus able to manage the gendered inequalities and pressures of their lives with demanding caring roles, work or unemployment. Restrictive gender norms, experiences of inequality that intersect with class, ethnicity, religion, sexuality and age, as well as a lack of gender-sensitive provision within mental health services and beyond (childcare, housing, domestic violence support, access to low-cost community activities that support well-being) were key policy related issues. The policy challenge ahead of us is to understand the complexity of how mental health is affected by, and affects, all aspects of social life. Social science research has a unique contribution to making critical issues (such as gender inequalities) visible in the development of a whole range of approaches, decision-making processes about resources and public dialogue about how we understand the social conditions that shape distress and support wellbeing in the contemporary era.


The World in 2050 and Beyond: Part 3 - Science and Policy

📥  education, future, policymaking, research, technology

Lord Rees of Ludlow is Astronomer Royal at the University of Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy, and founder of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. This blog post, the third in a three-part series, is based on a lecture he gave at the IPR on 9 February. Read the first part here, and the second part here.

Even in the 'concertina-ed' timeline that astronomers envisage – extending billions of years into the future, as well as into the past – this century may be a defining era. The century when humans jump-start the transition to electronic (and potentially immortal) entities that eventually spread their influence far beyond the Earth, and far transcend our limitations. Or – to take a darker view – the century where our follies could foreclose this immense future potential.



One lesson I’d draw from these existential threats is this. We fret unduly about small risks – air crashes, carcinogens in food, low radiation doses, etc. But we’re in denial about some newly emergent threats, which may seem improbable but whose consequences could be globally devastating. Some of these are environmental, others are the potential downsides of novel technologies.

So how can scientists concerned about these issues – or indeed about the social impact of any scientific advances – gain traction with policy-makers?

Some scientists, of course, have a formal advisory role to government. Back in World War II, Winston Churchill valued scientists' advice, but famously kept them "on tap, not on top". It is indeed the elected politicians who should make decisions. But scientific advisers should be prepared to challenge decision-makers, and help them navigate the uncertainties.

President Obama recognised this. He opined that scientists' advice should be heeded "even when it is inconvenient – indeed, especially when it is inconvenient". He appointed John Holdren, from Harvard, as his science adviser, and a ‘dream team’ of others were given top posts, including the Nobel physicist Steve Chu. They had a predictably frustrating time, but John Holdren 'hung in there' for Obama’s full eight years. And of course we’re anxious about what will happen under the new regime!

Their British counterparts, from Solly Zuckerman to Mark Walport, have it slightly easier. The interface with government is smoother, the respect for evidence is stronger, and the rapport between scientists and legislators is certainly better.

For instance, dialogue with parliamentarians led, despite divergent ethical stances, to a generally-admired legal framework on embryos and stem cells – a contrast to what happened in the US. And the HFEA offers another fine precedent.

But we've had failures too: the GM crop debate was left too late – to a time when opinion was already polarised between eco-campaigners on the one side and commercial interests on the other.

There are habitual grumbles that it’s hard for advisors to gain sufficient traction. This isn’t surprising. For politicians, the focus is on the urgent and parochial – and getting re-elected. The issues that attract their attention are those that get headlined in the media, and fill their in-box.

So scientists might have more leverage on politicians indirectly – by campaigning, so that the public and the media amplify their voice, for example – rather than via more official and direct channels. They can engage by involvement with NGOs, via blogging and journalism, or through political activity. There’s scope for campaigners on all the issues I’ve mentioned, and indeed many others. For instance, the ‘genetic code’ pioneer John Sulston campaigns for affordable drugs for Africa.

And I think religious leaders have a role. I’m on the council of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (which is itself an ecumenical body: its members represent all faiths or none). Max Perutz, for instance, was in a group of four who acted as emissaries of the Pope to promote arms control. And recently, my economist colleague Partha Dasgupta, along with Ram Ramanathan, a climate scientist – two lapsed Hindus! – achieved great leverage by laying the groundwork for the Papal encyclical on climate and environment.

There’s no gainsaying the Catholic Church’s global reach – nor its long-term perspective, nor its concern for the world’s poor. The Encyclical emphasised our responsibility to the developing world, and to future generations. In the lead-up to the Paris conference it had a substantial and timely influence on voters and leaders in Latin America, Africa and East Asia (even perhaps in the US Republican Party).

Science is a universal culture, spanning all nations and faiths. So scientists confront fewer impediments to straddling political divides. The Pugwash Conferences did this in the Cold War – and the governing board of Sesame, a physics project in Jordan, gets Israelis and Iranians around the same table today.

Of course, most of these challenges are global. Coping with potential shortages of food, water, resources – and the transition to low carbon energy – can’t be affected by each nation separately. Nor can threat reduction. For instance, whether or not a pandemic gets global grip may hinge on how quickly a Vietnamese poultry farmer can report any strange sickness. Indeed, a key issue is whether nations need to give up more sovereignty to new organisations along the lines of the IAEA, WHO, etc., And whether national academies, The World Academy of Sciences, and similar bodies should get more involved.

Universities are among the most international of our institutions, and they have a special role. Academics are privileged to have influence over successive generations of students. Indeed, younger people, who expect to survive most of the century, are more anxious about long-term issues, and more prepared to support ‘effective altruism’ and other causes.

Universities are highly international institutions. We should use their convening power to gather experts together to address the world's problems. That’s why some of us in Cambridge (with an international advisory group) have set up the Centre for the Study of Existential Risks, with a focus on the more extreme ‘low probability/high consequence’ threats that might confront us. They surely deserve expert analysis in order to assess which can be dismissed firmly as science fiction, and which should be on the ‘risk register’; to consider how to enhance resilience against the more credible ones; and to warn against technological developments that could run out of control. Even if we reduced these risks by only a tiny percentage, the stakes are so high that we’ll have earned our keep. A wise mantra is that ‘the unfamiliar is not the same as the improbable’.

I think scientists should all be prepared to divert some of their efforts towards public policy, and engage with individuals from government, business, and NGOs. There is in the US, incidentally, one distinctive format for such engagement that has no real parallel here. This is the JASON group. It was founded in the 1960s with support from the Pentagon. It involves top-rank academic scientists – in the early days they were mainly physicists, but the group now embraces other fields. They’re bankrolled by the Defense Department, but it’s a matter of principle that they choose their own new members. Some – Dick Garwin and Freeman Dyson, for instance – have been members since the 1960s. The JASONs spend about 6 weeks together in the summer, with other meetings during the year. It’s a serious commitment. The sociology and ‘chemistry’ of such a group hasn’t been fully replicated anywhere else. Perhaps we should try to do so in the UK, not for the military but in civilian areas – the remit of DEFRA, for instance, or the Department of Transport. The challenge is to assemble a group of really top-rank scientists who enjoy cross-disciplinary discourse and tossing ideas around. It won’t ‘take off’ unless they dedicate substantial time to it – and unless the group addresses the kind of problems that play to their strengths.

So to sum up, I think we can truly be techno-optimists. The innovations that will drive economic advance, information technology, biotech and nanotech, can boost the developing as well as the developed world – but there’s a depressing gap between what we could do and what actually happens. Will richer countries recognise that it's in their own interest for the developing world fully to share the benefits of globalisation? Can nations sustain effective but non-repressive governance in the face of threats from small groups with high-tech expertise? And – above all – can our institutions prioritise projects that are long-term in political perspectives, even if a mere instant in the history of our planet?

We’re all on this crowded world together. Our responsibility – to our children, to the poorest, and to our stewardship of life’s diversity – surely demands that we don’t leave a depleted and hazardous world. I give the last word to the eloquent biologist Peter Medawar:

“The bells that toll for mankind are [...] like the bells of Alpine cattle. They are attached to our own necks, and it must be our fault if they do not make a tuneful and melodious sound.”


For more information on Lord Rees' IPR lecture, please see our writeup here.


Building the right organisations: a neglected policy tool?

📥  policymaking

Stephen Muers is Head of Strategy and Market Development at Big Society Capital. This blog post is based on his time as one of IPR's Visiting Policy Fellows while in his previous role as Director of Criminal Justice Policy at the Ministry of Justice.

My previous post on this blog discussed the importance of culture and values in determining policy outcomes, and posed the question of how policymakers can promote a culture of learning and innovation. This post picks up that challenge and looks at one way in which it can be done: building organisations that embody the desired values.



Culture comes from organisations

It is commonplace for managers in any organisation to say that culture change is hard. All the unwritten rules and practices of any institution reinforce one another and can act like the immune system in a living organism, rejecting new ideas and preventing unwelcome change. This is essentially the point I made in the previous post about how culture trumps policy tools, but at the organisational rather than system level: leadership tools are defeated by organisational culture in the same way that macro policy tools are defeated by the culture of a whole delivery system.

Organisation building as a policy tool

If culture is vital to policy success, and organisations embody culture, then surely creating new organisations is an important tool for the policymaker. However, it not always considered as a primary option. Government often starts with the classic option set of regulation, expenditure (or taxation) or exhortation. There are good reasons for this: they fit around the main levers that governments have and can be universal in their application, promising national-scale results that the development of new organisations is unlikely to achieve.

However the previous analysis on the impact of culture shows that the promised rapid national impact of these traditional tools may be a mirage. Regulation can be complied with to the letter and not the spirit, or ignored entirely. Expenditure can be misused and the tax system gamed by those with more detailed knowledge than the policymaker and different incentives. Exhortation can easily be ignored entirely if it doesn’t resonate with someone’s underlying value set. An example that illustrates the value of organisational culture compared to regulation is the experience of the UK financial services system around the 2008 financial crash. There was plenty of regulation in place that should, in theory, have prevented reckless lending. Northern Rock, Bradford and Bingley and RBS all had compliance departments, audits and copious paper trails demonstrating how they had followed the rules. The internal incentives and cultures that they had developed, however, made those controls operate as an afterthought and an inconvenience to be worked around. In contrast, some building societies that had remained driven by a value-system that focused on safe lending to their local communities came out of the crisis largely unscathed. The potential policy question in this example is therefore: should the response to the financial crisis have considered actively promoting the growth of financial institutions that are driven by positive social values, as well as looking at regulation of the market as a whole?

Organisation building is not, of course, mutually exclusive to the other policy tools. The recent experience with addressing low wages in the UK is a good example. The National Minimum Wage is a very successful piece of classic national regulation[1] – but its success goes well beyond the existence of the legislation and the fact that compliance is widespread (in fact, as recent press investigations have shown, even this simple and popular piece of regulation, largely going with the grain of prevailing culture, is sometimes being avoided). Progress beyond the minimum wage to an increasingly successful national movement for a Living Wage has in part been driven by employers (both private sector and not-for-profit) who see creating a better deal for their employees as a central part of their value system and therefore are willing to voluntarily go beyond the national minimum. They then act as role-models for other organisations, exemplifying what is possible and making it easier for others to follow suit.

How can policy build organisations?

The simplest way for policymakers to build new organisations is to do so directly: create a new statutory agency, design its governance and choose the leadership so as to maximise the chance of it successfully embodying the desired values. This can work fine when a single national organisation is what is required. A good example is the move in several countries to create anti-corruption bureaus to tackle perceived endemic problems in existing public sector institutions. The Hong Kong ICAC is often seen as a very successful effort in this direction, copied more recently in several of the Eastern European states as part of their preparation for EU membership and also in African countries including Sierra Leone, Ghana and Malawi among others.[2]

In other cases, however, the new organisation (or organisations) may need to be more dispersed and further from government control. Also, the more closely an organisation’s creation is controlled by and associated with a particular government, the greater the risk that a change of political control will end up undermining it before any impact on the culture system overall has a chance to take effect. One route to adopting a more dispersed model is for government to establish the outline of a form for new organisations to use, and some supportive funding and regulation, but allow others to build the individual examples. The academy school programme supported by successive UK governments exemplifies the benefits of such an approach: academies are a new organisational form with a strong bias towards both independence from government and collaboration between chains of schools. The details of the particular culture and philosophy of education developed by each chain is left to them, rather than designed by the centre – but the net effect at a system level has been a significant impact on the overall culture of education in England.[3]

Moving even further from central government control, it is possible for policymakers to foster the development of desirable organisations that, once established, have little to do with government at all. For example charities and social enterprises have a particular ability to foster value change as they are explicitly value-driven organisations. Social enterprises do behave differently from other businesses in the same industries, with potentially socially advantageous results both directly and as a result of showing others what is possible (although hard evidence for the latter is limited[4]). Clearly government has little control over such independent bodies, which may well be dealing directly with consumers in a market with no government involvement. This doesn’t mean that policymakers can’t still play a role, though – through setting tax and regulatory regimes that benefit value-led organisations, for instance (take the creation of Social Investment Tax Relief). Such an approach is an indirect way of achieving impact, potentially with a long lead-time, and so is less appealing to policymakers under pressure to deliver results. However, if we believe that cultural change is generally essential to delivering social improvement, that such change is usually organic, evolutionary and slow, and that an ecosystem of organisations that adapt and support one another is likely to be needed, then this kind of approach has much to commend it.

Of course, just creating a new institution will not solve the cultural barriers to policy change. If the rest of the system doesn’t respond and seeks to undermine it then a new culturally distinct organisation will struggle. Indeed, many of the anti-corruption bodies have suffered this fate as political opponents seek to undermine them by cutting off resources, attacking the integrity and credibility of their leadership or simply ignoring their conclusions.[5] If a new organisation goes with the grain of other supportive trends in society, however, then it can be an important part of making a difference.

When is organisation building likely to work?

Like any policy tool, building organisations to embody a desired culture change (as opposed to building an organisation simply as a delivery channel for a policy intervention) will only be suitable in certain situations. The following criteria should be considered:

·         Are decisions made at organisation level the important ones to drive change? Some policies are directed at changing the decisions that organisations make, such as how businesses invest or how public bodies commission services. Others are much more closely related to individual choices. The latter are less likely to be amenable to an organisation-building strategy: the crucial cultural values are carried by informal peer networks rather than the sort of institutions that policymakers can build. It  is harder to see how the cultural changes needed to tackle individual choices about whether to drink-drive or abuse drugs, for example, are likely to be developed by new forms of organisation that are fostered by policymakers.

·         Do the key organisations need to be directly democratically accountable? There is a separate debate (which I will not cover here) about which decisions should be taken by directly elected representatives. There is an important link to this debate, however: it will be harder to develop institutions that embody a particular set of values if those institutions need to be directly accountable, as they will then necessarily adapt to the political leadership of the moment and the prevailing majority view in the electorate.  Also, if there is an existing set of elected institutions that monopolises the policy space involved, then there may be no room for new entry. The possible exception to this would be if the policymaker’s intention was to promote a culture of democratic responsiveness, either as an end in itself or as the best way of achieving flexible, innovative policy delivery.

·         What are the existing competitor organisations? No new organisation lands in a vacuum. If it is a threat to existing players in the same space, they may well attempt to damage it or to push its culture into a form with which they are more comfortable. It is important not to overstate this particular risk though: history shows that new values-driven organisations can thrive even in existing competitive markets. Mutual building societies, friendly societies and co-operatives grew in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries despite the presence of large shareholder-return driven financial institutions. Ethical businesses (those following Fair Trade principles, for example) have made serious inroads in large consumer markets such as coffee and chocolate. Heavy competition will make change via institution building a long-term challenge, but need not rule it out entirely.

The value of values

Building new organisations is just like any other approach to policy in that it will not work in all situations, there are different approaches that will suit different challenges and there are trade-offs to make around the timescale for impact and where control, accountability and impetus for innovation sit. I would argue, though, that if we take seriously the need to address culture and values when thinking about policy change – and the claim that effective change comes from experimentation, learning and evolution – then creating the organisations that have such an approach at the heart of their existence has much to commend it.


[1] Institute for Government “The S Factors” 2012
[2]Sousa. Anti-corruption agencies: between empowerment and irrelevance. Crime, Law and Social Change, 2009
[3] Woods, Woods and Gunther “Academy Schools and entrepreneurialism in education” Journal of Education Policy 2007 (Vol 22 issue 2)
[4] Peattie and Morley “Social Enterprises: Diversity and Dynamics, Context and Contributions” ESRC Research Monograph 2008
[5] Doig, Watt and Williams Investigating “success” in Five African Anti-Corruption Commissions U4 report 2005


Cost over quality: sexual health in an age of austerity

📥  Economy, health, policymaking, Public sector

Dr Frances Amery is Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Bath and Co-Convener of the PSA Women and Politics Specialist Group.

Sexual and reproductive health (SRH) is a hugely important yet neglected area of public health. From access to abortion and contraception to treatment for HIV, SRH services are an essential part of efforts to address inequality. Yet SRH provision has been severely impacted by the NHS restructure precipitated by the 2012 Health and Social Care Act and by subsequent cuts to public spending.



The policy background

Department of Health guidance on SRH provision is set out in A Framework for Sexual Health Improvement in England, published in 2013. The Framework was published amid widespread uncertainty about what the upcoming reforms to the NHS would mean for SRH services and calls for the government to clarify its approach, while responding to evidence of inequalities in the sector. In particular, campaigners and medical organisations called for a life course approach to SRH which takes into account the ways in which men and women’s needs change with age.

The Framework appears to address these concerns. Equalities issues are foregrounded throughout: the document draws attention to the need to tackle discrimination and stigma surrounding sexual health matters, to ensure equality of access to services, to promote good body image and self-esteem, and to raise awareness of issues surrounding consent. Throughout, the different needs of different social groups and identities are highlighted. Calls for a life course approach are also addressed in a section titled ‘Sexual health across the life course’.

On paper, there has been a clear attempt to respond to demands of various advocacy groups. But as many equality policy researchers have observed, good intentions on paper often do not result in equality in practice. Indeed, the Framework has come under fire from SRH providers and campaigners for putting forward ‘ambitions’ without setting in place strategies to achieve them.

Inequalities remain in sexual and reproductive health

In spite of the high-flown ambitions found in DH guidance, huge inequalities in service provision and access remain. A 2012 report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sexual and Reproductive Health (APPGSRH) found evidence of some local authorities barring women over the age of 25 from accessing contraceptive services, and sexual health charities suggest that this situation has not improved. There are also regional variations in the coverage of abortion services, with Scottish women facing significant barriers in access, while abortion law in Northern Ireland remains incredibly strict. Many women are not able to access abortion and contraceptive services under one roof, meaning that the quality of the care they receive is compromised.

Meanwhile, clinics around the country face the threat of closure due to budget cuts. An example is the proposed closure of the genitourinary medicine clinic at Whipps Cross Hospital, which campaigners say will have a disproportionate impact on black and Asian men living with HIV. While closed clinics usually have their services integrated into a larger clinic at a different site – as is planned for the Whipps Cross clinic – there is often still a negative impact on the community as patients lose access to local services. Some patients may not be willing or able to travel the longer distances now required of them.

Particular difficulties exist regarding trans people’s access to services. Demand for trans services is booming, yet there are only a handful of gender identity clinics in the UK. Waiting times are astronomical, with some clinics predicting that new patients will have to wait four years for their first appointment.

Among all this, race is a cross-cutting issue. Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities tend to suffer worse health outcomes than the general population, and sexual health is no exception: BAME communities bear a disproportionate burden of HIV, and BAME people can sometimes face more stigma and greater barriers when accessing sexual health services. This problem is worsened by the closure of clinics servicing local communities. There is also a lack of representation in service provision: for example, BAME trans people might never meet another trans person who shares their background when attending treatment and support groups.

Why aren’t we delivering adequate services?

The government’s ‘ambitions’ regarding SRH provision and related inequalities are hindered, in large part, by fragmentation in commissioning and service provision. Lack of centralised, top-down direction is not necessarily a problem for healthcare, and local networks can be key players in advancing healthcare services. But in this case, fragmentation has been accompanied by a lack of accountability within commissioning structures resulting in gaps in service provision. This was already the case before the Health and Social Care Act 2012 came into force, but has been worsened by the subsequent restructuring of the NHS.

The Health and Social Care Act abolished the existing structures responsible for commissioning services and replaced these with new Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), as well as establishing new national bodies. Responsibility for commissioning the various services making up sexual and reproductive healthcare – including abortion services and HIV treatment – is now spread out among CCGs, local authorities and the national commissioning board, although the lion’s share of responsibility rests with local authorities. The APPGSRH argues that this has resulted in a further loss of clear lines of accountability, which means that commissioners are not able to work together effectively. These commissioning silos can mean that it is not possible to deliver integrated services under one roof, since abortion and contraceptive services, for example, are commissioned by different bodies. Public Health England, the new executive agency with responsibility for SRH (among other aspects of public health in England), has ‘reducing health inequalities’ as a key part of its stated mission, but little role in policy formulation. Initial claims that the body would ‘speak truth to power’ appear to have been forgotten, and it has so far shown an unwillingness to challenge government policy.

This has all been compounded by the politics of austerity and in particular by cuts to local government budgets. Since November 2015, local authorities’ public health budgets have been separated from the budget for NHS England. This means that they are not protected from the latter’s budget ring-fencing, and public health spending has dramatically fallen as a result. While local authorities receive their own ring-fenced grants for public health, there is evidence that these are being diverted towards threatened services in other areas. Austerity has promoted unequal health outcomes directly, as clinics and services close or relocate as a result of budget cuts. Some contracting models appear to prioritise cost efficiency over quality, further compromising the services on offer.

Cuts to SRH services are a false economy – they result in drastically increased spending due to unintended pregnancies and STI infections. We should be more concerned, however, with the adverse impact of cuts on disadvantaged communities. While Theresa May has expressed an interest in social justice, it remains to be seen whether she will address the trends set in motion under her predecessor.


Citizen's Income: the long history of an inevitable idea

📥  Economy, Finland, future, living wage, policymaking, political parties, research, Switzerland, universal income, Welfare

Dr Malcolm Torry is Director of the Citizen's Income Trust and a prolific author on the subject of Citizen's Income.

On Tuesday 11 October the Institute for Policy Research hosted a seminar on the desirability and feasibility of a Citizen’s or Basic Income: an unconditional and nonwithdrawable income for every individual. An account of the seminar is available on the IPR’s website. I shall not here repeat what was said at that seminar: instead, I shall begin with a different seminar.



Following the publication of its report on Citizen’s Income, the Royal Society of Arts hosted a seminar on the history and prospects of the Citizen’s Income debate. In his presentation Karl Widerquist, Co-chair of BIEN, the Citizen’s Income international umbrella group, recounted the history of the idea from the 18th Century onwards, and made suggestions as to the different ways in which the debate might now develop.

The subsequent discussion recognised that the more intense debate of the past two or three years has a variety of causes: think tank engagement with the issue, represented by the RSA’s and Compass’s reports, and interest at the Adam Smith Institute; successful pilot projects in Namibia and India; planned pilot projects in Finland and Holland; a referendum in Switzerland; political party interest in the UK (with the Green Party and the Scottish National Party supporting the idea, and Labour interested) and in other countries too; new trade union interest; and perhaps even the Citizen’s Income Trust’s 30 years of research and publications.

The current debate already has its own history, constituted by three phases: discussion of whether giving everyone a Citizen’s Income would be desirable, interest in whether it would be feasible, and discussion of which would be the best way to implement the policy. There are no firm boundaries between these three phases (if a Citizen’s Income could not be implemented, for example, then it would not be feasible – and if it wasn’t felt to be desirable then it wouldn’t be feasible either), and each new phase has been in addition to a previous phase or phases, rather than being a replacement – but the progression is significant because it is evidence for the increasingly serious nature of the current debate. The think tank reports listed above belong to the ‘feasibility’ phase, as does my own recent Institute for Social and Economic Research Euromod working paper and recent book. A significant contribution to the new focus on implementation will be an Institute for Chartered Accountants consultation on the subject in November.

Where will the debate go now?

Luke Martinelli’s recent Institute for Policy Research blog discusses the diversity of the current debate in terms of, firstly, the diverse political ideologies of some of the players, and secondly the diversity of Citizen’s Income schemes discussed. A Citizen’s or Basic Income is always the same thing. It is always an unconditional and nonwithdrawable income for every individual. But there are of course a wide diversity of different schemes, with each scheme specifying the levels of Citizen’s Income for different age groups, and the changes that will be made to the existing tax and benefits systems when the Citizen’s Income is implemented. Compass called a scheme that retains means-tested benefits a ‘modified’ scheme. It is not. The Citizen’s Income is a genuine Citizen’s Income, so the scheme is a genuine Citizen’s Income scheme.

There is a history to this diversity. As with the three phases of the current debate, so the longer-term debate has evolved by addition rather than by replacement. Thomas Paine’s suggestion, that those who no longer have access to expropriated commons should be paid compensation, has been a continuing theme, represented today by Guy Standing’s campaigning scholarship. Today’s most high-profile representative of the libertarian argument for a Citizen’s Income is Philippe Van Parijs, and Charles Murray represents well the extreme version of this tendency, which would like to scrap all other welfare provision on the implementation of a Citizen’s Income. But this is to suggest – as Martinelli’s blog post does – that arguments for Citizen’s Income, and accompanying preferred Citizen’s Income schemes, can be located in clear ideological categories. I suspect that this is less and less the case. There are no longer clear categories, and there are no reliable spectra on which positions can be located. Our age is increasingly one of radical diversity. My first book on Citizen’s Income, Money for Everyone, discussed political feasibility in terms of identifiable political ideologies. The following book, 101 Reasons for a Citizen’s Income, simply offers 101 different reasons, recognising that for each individual a particular bundle of reasons might be significant. A handful of the reasons offered are framed in terms of political ideologies, because for many people those are still salient – but most of the reasons are simply listed in such broad categories as ‘economy’, ‘society’, ‘administration’, etc. My most recent book, Citizen’s Basic Income: A Christian Social Policy, recognises that we are a community of communities, and that particular communities might have their own distinctive reasons for supporting or rejecting Citizen’s Income. As the Citizen’s Income debate becomes increasingly mainstream, we shall find the same tendency that we find with other current issues: that they will become political footballs – that is, they will be pushed around by political considerations, rather than in relation to their own characteristics. The Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, has for a long time recognised that we shall one day need a Citizen’s Income, and that the idea needs to be carefully studied by government. He spoke at the Citizen’s Income Trust’s conference in 2014, invited the Trust to organise one of his People’s Parliament events, and since becoming Shadow Chancellor has reiterated his interest. Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party, has also been clear about his support. During the recent Labour Party leadership campaign, Corbyn’s opponent Owen Smith stated his view that Citizen’s Income wasn’t credible. Whether he had read any of the research I don’t know – but it certainly appeared that the motive for his objection was that his opponent had supported it. It is regrettable when positions are taken for reasons proceeding from a personal political career, or for factional advantage, rather than on the basis of evidenced and reasoned argument – but incidents such as this are useful because they signal the fact that an idea is understood, and that it is understood to be significant. What is then required is a sustained emphasis on the idea’s feasibility.

The Feasibility of Citizen’s Income understands feasibility as multifaceted, and recognises that specifically political feasibility is just one aspect of feasibility. In order to be implemented, a Citizen’s Income scheme would need to pass two kinds of financial feasibility test, with regard to both the feasibility of paying for it and the need to avoid imposing losses on low-income households at the point of implementation; it would need to pass psychological, behavioural, and administrative feasibility tests; and it would need to be able to negotiate the complex policy process from idea to implementation. The book concludes that there are Citizen’s Income schemes that could achieve all of that. A conclusion that might have been more explicit is that conformity of the scheme to a political ideology or ideologies might be fairly unimportant. A conclusion that is drawn matches one that Martinelli draws: that deeply embedded convictions, relating to reciprocity, deservedness, and so on, will need to be recognised at the implementation stage, because only those implementation methods that could achieve public approval can be regarded as feasible. The popularity of both the NHS and Child Benefit suggest that unconditional benefits fit the British psyche just as much as ideas of reciprocity and deservedness do; so as long as age groups generally felt to be ‘deserving’ are the first to receive Citizen’s Incomes, psychological feasibility should not be too difficult to achieve. Governments can move ahead of public opinion if they are moving in the same direction – recent examples are the ban on smoking in workplaces and public places, and the legalisation of same-sex marriage – and legislation can sometimes shape public opinion (as equalities legislation has done). This suggests that any government that saw good reason for implementing a Citizen’s Income scheme would be able to do so, as long as it started with age groups generally believed to be deserving – that is, children, retired people, the pre-retired, and the 16+ age group.

Martinelli suggests that the Citizen’s Income debate will exhibit a variety of different Citizen’s Income schemes, with each kind relating to a different set of political convictions. I’m not so sure. It is a reasonable assumption that for the foreseeable future any initial Citizen’s Income scheme in a developed country will need to be revenue neutral, and possibly strictly revenue neutral (in the sense that only tax allowances related to earnings would be reduced to help to pay for the Citizen’s Income). Microsimulation research at the Institute for Social and Economic Research has shown that a revenue-neutral Citizen’s Income scheme can only avoid imposing unacceptable losses on low-income households if current means-tested benefits are left in place and are recalculated to take account of each household’s Citizen’s Income and changes in net earnings. Recently updated figures show that a working-age adult Citizen’s Income of £60 per week could be paid for on this basis. This is not large, but neither is it insignificant. Compass’s recent report takes a similar approach. The RSA report does not – but neither has it tested its proposed scheme for low-income household losses at the point of implementation. We look forward to the results of current IPR microsimulation research. We are now more aware than before that although it is possible to construct a wide variety of Citizen’s Income schemes in theory, in practice only a narrow range of that diversity could ever be financially feasible in both senses of that term. If the debate about Citizen’s Income remains mainstream, and if it becomes increasingly so, then any infeasible scheme will be put under considerable pressure (as the Green Party’s proposed scheme was before the 2015 General Election) – and the result will be convergence on a narrow range of revenue-neutral schemes that would not impose losses on low-income households at the point of implementation.

The increasingly flexible and diverse nature of the employment market, family structures, and society and the economy generally, and the way in which the proceeds of production will continue to accrue to capital rather than to labour, mean that sooner or later we shall need a Citizen’s Income – and that we shall need to find some means of paying for it. But that could still be a very long process. Maybe by this time next year everybody will have lost interest, and the idea will have to await another upsurge in interest in a generation’s time; or maybe there will be both developing and developed countries taking the first steps towards implementation. More likely, we shall experience a situation somewhere between those two. Whatever the debate is like next year, it will have been important for high-quality research to have facilitated it. For this reason it is a pleasure to see the Institute for Policy Research contributing to the research that we shall need, and to the widespread debate that is now required.

This blog post develops on themes discussed by Dr Torry in a recent IPR Seminar. You can view the seminar and slides in full on our online lectures page, or listen to the podcast on our Soundcloud playlist.

Policymaking, Citizenship and Democracy in a Complex World

📥  employment, future, migration, New Labour, policymaking

Professor Graham Room is Director of Research and Professor of Social Policy in the Department of Social & Policy Sciences at the University of Bath

Complexity Science

Recent decades have seen a dramatic growth in the literature on complex systems. Much of this has developed in mathematics and in the natural and computational sciences. Increasingly however it is also infusing the social sciences.

This has in many ways been a breath of fresh air. It has got social scientists drawing upon dynamic models from the natural sciences that can be extremely fertile in suggesting new insights – in terms for example of tipping points, bifurcations and co-evolving systems. It has created much greater interest in the non-linear dynamics of the social world – and in the macro-patterns that emerge unanticipated from the micro-interactions in which we are all involved.



Nevertheless, in applying these perspectives to the social world, we need to take care. How human beings interact depends on the subjective meanings which they construct and negotiate with each other. These interactions involve them in exercising and contesting power. All this also involves uncertainty – and efforts by the powerful to offload that uncertainty onto others. Yet these have been rather neglected by much of the complexity writing within the social sciences.


Evidence-based policymaking brings together robust evidence as to the outcome or impact of a particular intervention. Evidence is collected, evaluated and aggregated – ‘systematically reviewed’ – across as wide a range of contexts as possible. The gold standard remains the randomised controlled trial.

The prominence given to this gold standard can be explained in part by its high status within medical science and clinical practice. What may also be relevant is the ascendancy of the 'contract culture' for the commissioning of public services from multiple providers – contracts that need to specify the impacts against which the service providers will be judged, and which depend therefore on a well-established evidence base for such impact (and a policy research community that endorses such an approach). This may also explain why impacts which can be couched in terms of ‘behaviour change’ are especially attractive, if they seem readily identifiable and measurable.

This tends to assume that any particular intervention can be assessed in isolation from others. The complexity literature however tells us that we live in a connected world – and that these connections require us to pay attention to the dynamic interactions among policy interventions. Any new intervention is an intrusion into a dynamic policy ‘ecosystem’ and must be evaluated as such.

Government leaders warn that conventional methods of policy intervention no longer seem to work. New models of a dynamically interconnected world are needed, if they are to anticipate, steer and control its turbulent behaviour. It is just such models that the literature on complex systems affords. One of the simplest and most elegant is Schelling’s model of residential segregation in cities.[1] His agents have different addresses on a grid or lattice. Schelling posits a ‘tolerance schedule’, a preference not to have within one’s immediately adjacent neighbourhood more than a certain proportion of another race: the general racial composition of the city at large is however of no concern. Starting with an initially random distribution of households across the city, Schelling conducts repeated simulations, as households walk step-wise to an adjacent address, whenever their immediate neighbours exceed this racial threshold. He shows that even a rather mild level of racial antipathy – and concerned only with immediate neighbours – will quickly generate zones of racial segregation across the city.

Schelling’s actors react to the racial composition of their immediate neighbourhood. As they do so, their actions affect the composition of adjacent neighbourhoods, and the society as a whole moves progressively to a more segregated state. Any particular individual may find that, whatever the level of their own tolerance, the ethnic composition of their neighbourhood is increasingly likely to exceed that threshold, obliging them to move. Even the most tolerant finds that their neighbourhood steadily loses all diversity. In this way the rate of segregation accelerates, through processes of positive feedback.  What this means is that the level of social segregation that results is quite other than the individuals in question themselves anticipated or sought.

This is a simple model, but one which illustrates well how ‘macro’ emerges from ‘micro’ in non-linear ways and with counter-intuitive results. Policy interventions launched with insufficient thought, as to their interactions with the wider policy ecosystem, are unlikely to be sufficient to the task. No policy is launched onto a greenfield site: it is an intervention in a tangled web of institutions that have developed incrementally over extended periods of time and through a succession of political struggles. Complexity analysis can play a central role in the analysis of such policy dynamics.

Where much of the complexity literature is weak however is in recognising the exercise of power and interests in human societies and social interactions. What works for whom? By reference to which interests do we assess the significance of the effects of any intervention? In what ways do power inequalities ‘emerge’ from the complex social interactions to which complexity writers refer?

Of course, there is much that remains stable: otherwise we would hardly be able to live our everyday lives. Nevertheless, it is easy to take this stability for granted and not to notice the small changes that are continuously underway. It is also easy to focus on the stability that may be evident at home, while overlooking developments elsewhere. Stability and freedom of manoeuvre do not descend equally on all, as manna from heaven: they are the distributed through positional struggle.


Policymakers – and their academic policy advisers – adopt a variety of assumptions about the citizens they serve and what motivates those citizens to behave as they do. These assumptions are not immune to successive intellectual fashions.

Rational action theories remain dominant across much of social science: here social actors assess the menu of choices available to them in terms of their costs, benefits and consequences. The rational citizen deserves to be provided with clear information about the public services that are available and those services should embody variety and choice.

There is however increasing recognition of the bounds to such rationality, because of the partial information that actors have at their disposal and their limited ability to assess risk. This is true not just of the person in the street: it was also only too evident in the 2008 financial crisis, when the ‘rationality’ of the financiers produced risky behaviours that almost led to systemic collapse. The complexity literature reinforces that recognition of the bounds to rational choice. The lesson of Schelling’s model, discussed above, is that aggregating individual choices can produce counter-intuitive results for the individuals in question, as well as being non-optimal socially. This fundamentally challenges the central place that has been given to individual choice in the rhetoric of policy reform over recent decades.

Meanwhile, recent years have seen growing interest – especially on the part of economists – in behaviourist perspectives. These in some degree abandon orthodox models of rational economic behaviour, especially as far as ‘ordinary’ people are concerned, instead pointing to the biases and blunders that they display in many of their decisions. These behaviourist perspectives – based on empirical studies of individual behaviour – have increased the attention given in policy debate not only to the contribution of psychologists, but also that of neuroscientists, claiming to measure wellbeing in a far more rigorous manner than social scientists could ever offer.

This is the realm of ‘nudge’, with policymakers seeking to structure the ‘choice architectures’ that face citizens, so that even with their innate biases and short-sightedness, they will make choices that align with their own best interests. Nudge has been well-described by Thaler and Sunstein as ‘libertarian paternalism’. [2] This might however seem a very modest form of paternalism, compared with that which traditional welfare states are often accused of embodying, where the citizen is said to be left with few if any options. Nudge leaves the citizen to make the final choice: government can structure the choice architecture, but if, despite this, citizens still make the wrong choices, that is their responsibility.

What if the citizen, however – far from being lazy or short-sighted – is simply but profoundly unsure what to do, given the insecurity and instability of the world around them? It is after all not with all citizens that Thaler and Sunstein are equally concerned: their particular focus is on ‘the least sophisticated’, who they reckon to be in greatest need of such guidance. These are precisely those who are most exposed to such insecurity and instability. The citizen may want not more choices, but a guarantee of wellbeing and security instead.

Consider instead therefore an account in terms of agile actors. This depicts social actors as probing the complex and turbulent landscapes on which they find themselves, but only if they can do so from the vantage point of some stable and settled ground. In contrast to rational action theories, it sees social actors not as menu-takers but as menu-shapers, re-working and contesting the social and economic world in which they find themselves. In contrast to behaviourist perspectives, it understands any biases and blunders by reference to the settled ground from which social actors draw their routines and practices: a ground which may be extensive or shrunken, and which must be understood in terms not of psychology but of sociology and political economy. The result is a perspective on social action that sharply distances itself from the abstract individualism of much contemporary writing.

This gives a central place to uncertainty and instability and to the efforts by agile actors to offload their costs onto others. The social distribution of uncertainty thus moves to centre-stage. But of course, this is a struggle played out on unequal terms. Those already at a positional disadvantage are likely to carry a disproportionate share. They may end up with hardly any stable and settled ground from which to shape their world, and with little option therefore but to hunker down and cling to a precarious existence.

A New Social Contract

It is from this analytical standpoint that we examine the social and political conditions under which agile citizenship may be possible for all.

Citizens need to be secure, resilient and adaptable, if they are to survive and thrive in a complex world. No less than the earlier leitmotifs of rational consumer choice and nudge, our notion of agile actors suggests an agenda of policy reform. This involves public policies to provide a stable and secure ground for all – and investment in the creative energies of everyone.

The recent direction of UK social policies has been to push as many as possible into the market place, narrowing public generosity towards those who remain. The burden of austerity has fallen on the most disadvantaged, multiplying the uncertainties to which they are exposed. This is the politics of fear and surrender to the global market, of insecurity and hunkering down.

In contrast, the post-war social contract between state and citizen, across the western world, involved a pooling of risks and uncertainties through systems of social security. It set the fraternity and mutual interdependence of citizenship against the divisions and inequalities of class and against the turbulence and insecurity of an urban-industrial society. The same period saw governments confronting the economic instability of capitalist society. This has sometimes been characterised as a consensual process, the benign fruit of economic progress. Nevertheless, as T H Marshall warned: ‘in the twentieth century, citizenship and the capitalist class system have been at war’. [3]

If the social changes of the 21st Century are to be managed successfully and with public consent, they need a new social contract to underpin them. We need to mobilise the energies and talents of all sections of society, and we are more likely to pull together if the distribution of rewards is less unequal. Such a contract would need to include several interrelated elements, going well beyond traditional welfare systems:

·         Individual security against risks of income interruption: the heartland of traditional welfare states, albeit in the last half century on the defensive, across much of the industrialised world, in face of neo-liberal hostility to state welfare;

·         Investment in everyone’s capabilities, not just in those with parental wealth: what many have referred to as the ‘social investment state’. There is good evidence that for a given financial outlay, it is investment in the lowest-skilled that can produce the greatest benefit for national productivity; [4]

·         The rebalancing of our economies to provide ‘decent jobs’ which make use of everyone’s capabilities;

·         Investment in vibrant local communities, as places of education, learning and creativity for all – in particular for disadvantaged communities, which are often poorly connected to the society at large;

·         Involvement of all in the governance of social, political and economic institutions, with active citizenship and scrutiny of public policies, and of the corporate interests which might otherwise detract from such a contract.

Such a contract would involve a broad range of policies of relevance to all citizens, rather than focussing just on society’s casualties. It would need to go far beyond the notion of a basic income, which in various guises has again reared its head across the political spectrum. It would limit the risks of poverty but also promote economic growth; promote individual security but also collective resilience and adaptability. It would also go far beyond the extension of choice in public services, with the citizen seen primarily as a consumer. It would involve rebuilding local and national communities, as points where these different policies can be connected up. It would leave the market where it belongs, as the servant of the community not its master.

This would also reshape the debate on immigration. First, by investing in the skills and creativity of our own population, we reduce the need for employers to look elsewhere – for nurses, for IT specialists and others – in ways that denude poorer countries of those in whom they have invested their slender national resources. Second, by taking collective responsibility for the infrastructures of those communities to which large numbers of immigrants come, rather than ‘devolving’ this burden to the local areas in question, we reduce the risk that those communities will see immigrants as a threat.

It is not however enough for government to provide stability and security and to invest in agile and creative citizens; those citizens must also be able to hold government to account. This means government being placed under critical scrutiny by citizens, rather than vice versa. This gives a fundamental role to citizens in policymaking as well as in policy implementation. Nudge, in contrast, makes little or no attempt to engage citizens as active, critical and responsible partners; they are deemed hardly up to that.

A Self-Organising Democracy?

By the start of the new century, New Labour had in some measure joined the Conservatives in their celebration of market capitalism, with philosophical underpinnings that owed much to Hayek. The economy was a decentralised system, best left to self-organise and self-steer. Government could not expect to second-guess the market and had therefore better stay out.

In the public services, both parties sought to expand individual choice: in many cases by expanding the role of the market and its self-organising virtues. Government would nevertheless maintain its overall grip, albeit at arm’s length – and even under conditions of austerity, big data and smart government would enhance its effectiveness. Public services would become leaner and fitter and more tightly managed, so as to be better-tuned to consumer choice.

Hayek’s vision likewise resonates with many of those who have been attracted by the literature on complex systems. He describes a complex and interconnected economy peopled by a myriad of micro-decision-makers – but one which has generated wealth on an unprecedented scale. This would seem an obvious example of the processes of ‘self-organisation’ with which the complexity literature deals, and one with socially benign consequences. In contrast, the complexity literature might well seem poorly aligned with the sort of social democratic vision that has been outlined above.

There are however several important caveats.

First, the complexity literature gives little attention to uncertainty (as distinct from risk) and its implications for social actors. As argued above, uncertainty makes people hunker down. On the economic and on the social front, government has a strong role to play in building stability and confidence – on the part of businesses, communities and individual citizens. This was of course a major tenet of Keynes’ analysis of economic recession, differentiating him from Hayek. In conditions of great uncertainty, businesses would not invest; strong government action was needed, to boost confidence in the future buoyancy of the economy. Otherwise the economy would ‘self-organise’ at sub-optimal levels of activity.

Second, Hayek pays insufficient attention to power differentials among social and economic decision-makers. The same goes for much of the complexity literature, including writers such as Schelling, concerned with a mass of micro-decision-makers, each following a simple algorithm as to whether to move house. The real world of contemporary capitalism gives scope for large corporations to shape the rules of those micro-interactions in their own interests. Not least, the more powerful are able to offload the costs of uncertainty onto others. Complexity analysis must be conjoined with political economy.

Third, there is little reason to confine the vision of a complex and interconnected society to the economy and market agents alone. The complexity literature can also inform our thinking about citizens and communities, their networks of interaction and the public services on which they draw. These too we can think of as decentralised systems with distributed intelligence, connecting a myriad of agile actors, with their varied projects and visions of change. Here too we might examine the counter-intuitive outcomes that can emerge and how these vary, depending on the institutional conditions.

Finally, while the complexity literature can help us to understand the non-linear emergence of macro-patterns from micro-interactions, it helps little in evaluating those macro-patterns in terms of how socially benign or otherwise they are.


Complex dynamics can produce a tangled knot of institutions and policy interventions, with path dependencies and lock-ins which are hard to escape, and trade-offs which allow of no easy resolution. ‘Wicked’ problems of this sort are unlikely to be solved by leaving them to the market, or by improving the technical skills of those in government. What is needed instead is the distributed intelligence and wisdom of all those involved and cooperative solutions that include citizens, their communities and the public services on which they depend.

The literature on complex systems demonstrates that quite small changes in initial conditions can result in dramatically different dynamics and directions of travel. It underlines that the future is open: there is always an alternative. This chimes well with longstanding critiques of ‘futurology’. [5]  Nevertheless, faced with an open future, the more powerful do not hesitate to intervene, to ensure as far as possible that their interests are protected, their position consolidated and the costs of uncertainty displaced onto others. To expose how these powerful groups narrow the range of possible futures is one of the tasks of the social scientist.

A second is to illuminate other possible paths of development, thereby enriching democratic debate. This is no merely technical matter. These alternative futures span the different values by which citizens live their lives and express their hopes and their fears.

A third is to fix responsibility and enable powerful actors to be held to account. But is this even in principle possible, given the unexpected and unintended dynamics that can emerge from simple individual choices? Think for example of Schelling’s interconnected city residents who collectively produce a segregated city – and which in the real world may mean the dramatic narrowing of choices and life chances for some of those ethnic minorities. Complexity analysis can enrich our analytical toolkit and illuminate these tangled processes.

Nevertheless, in a complex social system it is never wholly possible to allocate clear responsibility for such effects; it is necessary for the State to take ultimate responsibility for solidarity and compensation across the society as a whole. Civility does not ‘self-organise’ – it must be politically constructed, and we cannot escape the social and political choices of our time.

This blog post draws on Graham Room’s recently published book Agile Actors on Complex Terrains: Transformative Realism and Public Policy (Routledge, 2016)

[1] T C Schelling (1978), Micromotives and Macrobehaviour, London: W.W.Norton
[2] R H Thaler and C.R. Sunstein (2009), Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Revised edition), London: Penguin
[3] T H Marshall (1950), Citizenship and Social Class, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
[4] S Coulombe, J-F Tremblay and S Marchand (2004), Literacy Score, Human Capital and Growth across Fourteen OECD Countries, Ottawa: Statistics Canada
[5] J H Goldthorpe, J.H. (1972), 'Theories of Industrial Society: Reflecrions on the Recrudescence of Historicism and the Future of Futurology'', European Journal of Sociology, 12: 263-88.


Culture comes first: putting culture and values at the centre of public policy

📥  policymaking, political parties

Stephen Muers is Head of Strategy and Market Development at Big Society Capital. This blog post is based on his time as one of IPR's Visiting Policy Fellows while in his previous role as Director of Criminal Justice Policy at the Ministry of Justice.

The best approach to making decisions when information is dispersed and constantly changing is the subject of a central debate in public policy. Core textbooks for public policy students generally set out the arguments for and against a series of frameworks for such decision-making, each of which lead to different policy tools. More fundamentally, political leaders and senior public officials implicitly or explicitly endorse these frameworks to different degrees, shaping their favoured policy solutions. My argument is that many common frameworks fail to take sufficient account of culture and values both as a way of understanding policy change and as an explicit goal.



Tools for decision-making

Four sets of policy tools flowing from four overarching frameworks dominate policy debate.

Market tools, such as privatisation, financial transfers to enable people to purchase in the market and internal markets within public services like the NHS, will be the favoured options if you believe that the price mechanism and free self-interested agents will tend to arrive at the optimal outcome. A different – and arguably more sophisticated – variation of this is based in the Austrian rather than neo-classical school of economics: not attempting to argue that the market will necessarily optimise, but that that the price mechanism is the best proxy we have for summarising and assimilating dispersed information about the preferences of different actors.

Deliberative tools such as citizens’ juries, micro-level community control of services and the creation of new forums for public debate are the priority if you believe the interplay of unrestricted dialogue between individuals and/or groups is best suited to achieving the most desirable overall social outcome.

Rational state tools such as strategic planning, heavily regulated markets and needs-based allocation formulae will prevail if the preferred thesis is that the government is best able to assess and respond to the competing sources of information and social value. This is typically enabled by the use of bureaucratic expertise to assess options, with elected representatives determining normative issues of value and relative priority.

Informal judgements such as clan or family based networks and precedents are less often put forward as a desirable framework to aim for, but frequently posed as an empirically-based description of what actually happens. Such informal decision-making is a major feature in development studies, but is also highly relevant in industrialised societies (for example, studies of the former USSR have argued that the system was only capable of functioning because of its highly developed informal network of patronage, deals and exchange[1]).

Officials developing policy advice for ministers, MPs debating propositions, journalists commenting on policy issues and academics assessing the results spend considerable time and effort debating the merits of these frameworks and the tools they lead to. Is it better to contract out a service or plan it centrally? Should a service be devolved to local communities so they can decide the approach, or centralised to drive efficiency and fairness? Can a national formula allocate money efficiently and effectively? Should the government give people money to purchase something or provide it directly?

The importance of value systems

There is, however, a good case for saying that debating these different tools is missing the point. Anyone who has spent any time wrestling with public policy will have had the experience of changing the policy tools applied to a problem but getting the same results – or applying a tool that worked well in another locality or country and finding it is completely ineffective in a different context. If getting the right framework for understanding how to make decisions and designing tools appropriately doesn’t work, then what should we focus on?

Values and culture are the missing ingredients. Values and culture in this context refer to the set of (usually implicit) norms, ethical standards and habits shared by the actors in the relevant system. The psychological concept of ‘superordinate goals’ is useful here: the overall aims, sometimes at a broad, high level, which are shared by all the actors and which their ways of operating act to reinforce. Such goals do not need to be, and often aren’t, written down or otherwise expressed in a way that all the actors would sign up to – but can nonetheless be deduced from the way they interact.

Experience shows that values and culture are extremely powerful in determining outcomes. In the famous quote (sometimes attributed to Drucker), “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. After consuming strategy, culture then moves on to policy interventions and tools for lunch. Tools and interventions get co-opted and altered in order to serve the goals, values and assumptions of those using them.

International development practitioners are well versed in this phenomenon. Years of attempts to introduce ‘rational’ western-style merit-based bureaucracies, transparent needs-based allocations and fiscal planning in developing countries have, in many cases, seen those tools simply used to continue the extraction of rents for clan and family members. In a contrary example, similar informal networks and patronage-based approaches in China have produced impressive economic growth – one reason for this being that those networks sit within a very powerful set of superordinate goals around national prosperity and prestige. In western countries there are plenty of examples where supposedly market-based or technocratic processes are actually used to reinforce the existing position and values of elites and insiders: procurement rules that are in fact so complex that new entrants find them impossible, ‘open’ recruitment based on a set of criteria that narrowly reflects the status quo, ‘market-based’ solutions that involve little competition and the state retaining all the major risks (the failed London Underground PPP is a good example[2]).

Value systems as a policy goal

The first implication of value systems’ triumph over policy tools is that it would make sense for voters in a democracy to choose leaders on the basis of their fit with the values and superordinate goals that the elector wishes to see prevail in the country, rather than their detailed policy proposals. In this model, specific policy proposals offered by political leaders are important not so much in themselves but as ways of signalling a deeper set of cultural assumptions. There is, in fact, a reasonable amount of evidence that many voters do operate in this way. One study of the 1983 UK General Election found that many of the major policies in the Labour manifesto, the so-called ‘longest suicide note in history’, were popular. However, polling on more abstract and value-based perceptions of the two major parties (estimations of their ‘leadership’ and ‘patriotism’, for example) pointed much more accurately to the result[3]. Recently, some analyses of the UK’s EU referendum have argued that cultural values (order versus openness) were the strongest predictor of whether someone would vote to remain in or leave the EU, with attitudes to specific issues and also demographic factors emerging more as proxies for those underlying values[4]. Political campaigns often launch policies not because of their substantive merit but to ’send the right message’ about the assumptions on which their candidate operates.

Moving away from elections to decision-making in government, what are the implications of a focus on value systems? One is that it reinforces a long-standing line of argument in public policy research that having the centre determine processes across a dispersed policy system is futile. Outcomes will not be driven by centrally specified approaches, but by how the individual actors (“street-level bureaucrats” in Lipsey’s famous phrase) use and mutate those processes based on their own needs, values and desires. The process in and of itself has little force against street-level norms and values. A linked point is how to use international evidence and learning effectively. We need to move away from “can we implement the policy tool that was successful in country X?” towards “what is it about the system in country X that enabled them to develop an intervention that was so successful in their own context?”[5]

So if detailed process specification, or scouring the world for good ideas to import, won’t work, what should decision-makers be doing? The logic of focusing on value systems implies that they should be doing what they can to create a culture and value system that supports positive change, learning and evolution. If it is inevitable that outcomes are shaped by ‘street-level’ culture and the constant iteration that happens as people interact and revise their plans, are there things that can be done to help that dynamic lead to better outcomes?

Should government promote positive value systems?

First, it is necessary to address two arguments against attempts to change or create value systems. The first is that such attempts are doomed to failure. Culture is so persistent over time, and develops in such a dispersed, organic and unplanned way, that it is hubristic to think that conscious action by government, or indeed any other institution, can change it. There is a two-fold response to this challenge. The first part is to acknowledge that there is some force in this argument. Changing culture is not easy, and certainly not quick. It needs to be done with the grain of what is already there, and by building broad support rather than by top-down decree. The second part, however, is to point to the clear evidence that it can be done. The extreme example is the actions of totalitarian regimes: it is hard to argue that the Bolsheviks didn’t manage, over many years of focused effort, to change the fundamental culture and values of Russia and the other Soviet republics. The experience of Germany after WWII demonstrates the impact of government on culture through a sort of natural experiment: surveys after reunification showed that different cultures and value systems had become internalised by the populations of the two halves of the divided state. However, they also showed significant continuity, and so emphasised that government can only influence culture slowly and in part[6].

The second argument against attempts to change or create culture emerges from this last discussion: such actions are associated with dictatorial regimes and have no place in a liberal democracy. Shouldn’t a democratic government represent and embody the values of its population, rather than trying to engineer them? There are, again, two counter-arguments to this. The first is that a government cannot help influencing the values of the society it leads. Even if not done deliberately, the way government and its leaders behave and the values they implicitly or explicitly endorse will have an impact on society. If this impact is inevitable, there must be a case for consciously considering it and acting accordingly, rather than allowing the impact to occur by accident. The second is that if we believe that values and culture are central to determining social outcomes, and democratic governments are elected at least in part to deliver outcomes, then taking a position that they should not address those factors is to will the ends but not the means, and potentially condemn them to failure.

How to promote value systems

The most obvious way to create a culture that supports positive change and learning is for government to send messages through its words and actions that this is desirable. This would include launching and welcoming experiments in policy and practice and being open to learning from failure, to bottom-up innovation and to constant iteration rather than over-specifying plans from the start.[7]

Such an approach can, however, seem rather intangible. The obvious way to give it harder edges is to use incentives to reward service improvement and thereby encourage innovation that delivers such improvement across the system. This is the philosophy behind recent school reform; the changes gave schools autonomy to innovate, and strong incentives to do so, by introducing a rigorous performance regime.

However, performance incentives alone are unlikely to engender the culture of wholesale creative experimentation discussed above, for several reasons:

  • There is a long-standing body of literature which argues that it is hard to design incentives which can’t be gamed and that do not lead to distorting behaviour. There is always a risk that hard performance measures produce great innovation in the management of the measures themselves, rather than genuinely improving services across the board. Classic examples include hospitals meeting the four-hour A&E waiting time target by creating other queues elsewhere in the system[8], and schools focusing their efforts on pupils around the borderline of exam targets at the expense of the less able, who were never likely to make it[9].
  • Problems that require collaboration between lots of agencies, with the costs and benefits potentially falling asymmetrically, are difficult to address through performance incentives. While it is theoretically possible to design an outcomes framework that pulls all agencies together behind a common goal (the UK model of joint PSA targets, for example) it is hard to do so in a way that isn’t highly complex and bureaucratic. Simple measures of their own performance will tend to have more traction with service managers.
  • Measuring and rewarding performance as a way of promoting innovation has the downside of pushing innovation towards current problems that we know how to measure. The most valuable feature of a dispersed system is, in fact, its ability to react quickly to a changing situation, beginning the task of innovating to respond to new challenges before the central authority has even clocked their existence. The makers of Blackberry phones were proud of the way they encouraged employees to innovate and improve keypad mobile phones – but missed the real innovation of moving to touch-screens and disposing of keypads altogether.
  • Service outputs, or even outcomes, are not the only objective of public services in a democratic state. Such services also need to operate in a way that is recognised as fair and legitimate, and which promotes trust between citizens and institutions. While trust and legitimacy is, in some cases, measurable, it is much harder to target with performance incentives[10].

Multi-national corporations that operate with a high degree of autonomy amongst their business units face the same challenge around creating a positive culture of innovation and learning. Evidence from examples such as General Electric indicates that performance incentives alone are not sufficient. These companies have tended to find that, within a decentralised environment, the centre needs to provide an infrastructure for collaboration, mutual learning and opportunities that actively pushes people in that direction, in order to avoid narrow and immediate targets being the sole focus for their creativity. Simply incentivising people to hit performance goals doesn’t lead to a culture that is healthy for innovation in the long term[11].

What a successful infrastructure and environment for collaboration and learning looks like will be highly context specific. What General Electric does to engender innovative learning by local business managers will look very different from what the health service or the police might do. Innovation and learning will be needed to discover how best to innovate and learn, and to keep that understanding up to date. While performance incentives alone are not likely to work, there is also a long history of softer collaboration approaches (best practice networks, peer support, joint boards and shared funding, for example) draining large amounts of resources for little discernible effort. Developing better ways to promote a culture of positive change, learning and evolution is a central task for both public service leaders and the researchers who wish to understand and help them.


[1] Russia’s economy of favours, A Ledeneva 1998, CUP
[2] Blunders of our governments, Crew and King 2013, OneWorld
[3] British General Election of 1983 1984, Butler and Kavanagh, Palgrave Macmillan
[4] “It’s not the economy, stupid”, Kaufmann 2016, LSE discussion paper
[5] “What makes governments get great”, Andrews 2013, Harvard Business School discussion paper
[6] “Value Priorities in the United Germany”, Boehnke et al 1993, European Journal of Psychology of Education; “Individual Preferences for Political Redistribution”, Corneo and Gruner 2002, Journal of Public Economics
[7] “Is your policy a dodo”, Muers 2014 Civil Service Quarterly
[8] “Review into the Four Hour Emergency Access Reporting at Nottingham University Hospital Final Report”, Ken et al 2010
[9] E.g. “Quick fixes to climb league tables”, Marley and Mansell, 2007 Times Educational Supplement
[10] “Creating Public Value”, Kelly and Muers 2004, Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit discussion paper
[11] Author discussion with Monia Mtar, University of Bath Business School


Giving back control? A contradiction at the heart of Universal Credit

📥  employment, policymaking, Welfare

Professor Jane Millar is a member of the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) Leadership Team, in addition to her role as Professor of Social Policy at the University of Bath. Fran Bennett is Senior Research and Teaching Fellow in the University of Oxford's Department of Social Policy and intervention.

As Damian Green arrives as Secretary of State in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Universal Credit must be at the top of the long list of issues he faces. And the decisions he takes will have a major impact on the incomes and living standards of those ‘ordinary working class’ families that the new Prime Minister has promised will be the focus of her government.



An estimated ten million people will be in the Universal Credit net when the new system is fully in operation in the next five years. The current system is very complex: people have to find their way through a maze of benefits, and they have to make new claims for some benefits every time they move in and out of work. Universal Credit will smooth that transition by replacing six existing means-tested benefits (Income Based Jobseeker’s Allowance, Housing Benefit, Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, Income Related Employment and Support Allowance and Income Support) with a single benefit.

Having one single benefit will, it is asserted, encourage more people to work, improve take-up of benefits and tackle in-work poverty. The idea of Universal Credit – and in particular the simplification of the system – has itself received almost universal support. This has come from political parties, from think-tanks and NGOs, from the House of Commons Select Committees, and from the Social Security Advisory Committee. There have been some cold feet about the very slow and very costly implementation, with critical reports from the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee among others, and the recent announcement of further delays until 2022 highlight the very real challenges of making this system work. But Iain Duncan Smith’s vision for Universal Credit remains, so far, largely intact.

The fact that there is support from a wide range of interests and groups might be taken as a good sign. But policy consensus can also mean lack of scrutiny and challenge. Perhaps we need to look more closely at the design and try to understand what it might mean for those millions of people as they try to access the system. If we walk through the system, as it is supposed to work, what happens?

First, you must make your claim online. This is the only way to claim and the only way to update your claim if your circumstances change, though Jobcentres or local advice services may help complete this for you. This is a big step into the modern IT world – but perhaps not a step that everyone is able to take yet. Many people with low incomes have no access to computers at home, and must rely on friends or public systems in libraries or Jobcentres, which are not always readily available. Others will lack the experience and skills to easily negotiate complicated online forms. DWP evaluation has already found some significant barriers to the use of IT, which suggests that this area might require significant and ongoing investment.

Second, you must sign a ‘claimant commitment’. This kind of arrangement will be familiar to people who have claimed Jobseeker’s Allowance, most of whom have always had full-time work requirements as part of their benefit conditions. Universal Credit extends these work requirements in various ways, depending on your circumstances. Lone parents will have to be actively looking for work once their youngest child is three, and be preparing for work before that. But so will partners with children, who have not previously had work requirements like this. And people already in part-time work may be required to try to increase their earnings or hours. A new role within DWP – the ‘work coach’ - is being introduced to support unemployed people into work and help those in work to increase their hours. The work coaches will have some discretion to vary work requirements (for example, for disability and caring obligations) but will also be responsible for sanctioning those who fail to meet their claimant requirement. Some early evidence suggests that people in work are bemused by these requirements, which they feel are very unfair.

Third, you must report changes in circumstances, apart from changes in earnings. Changes in earnings for employees will be picked up automatically by the ‘real-time information’ system that uses PAYE data – a big step forward and key to making work transitions smoother. But all other changes in circumstances must still be reported and there are many of these, in total (including earnings changes) when fully operational this could mean as many as 1.6 million per month.

Experience with tax credits shows that many people will struggle to understand what exactly they have to report and when. And when they do report, the changes will be applied on a single assessment date each month and treated as though they apply to whole of the previous month. This might be good or bad news, depending on the event and the timing. Universal Credit is paid for the month just gone, not the month to come. So if you have a baby just before the assessment date you will get almost a month’s extra benefit. But if your oldest child leaves home just before assessment you will lose almost a month. This creates a disjunction between income and circumstances, making it harder to meet current needs or to plan ahead.

Fourth, you will receive your benefit as a single monthly cash payment. This is intended to give people the opportunity to manage their money in the same way as they would in work. But the single payment will challenge budgeting practices that rely on the receipt of different sources of income at different times. There are systems to allow for alternative arrangements in certain circumstances, and support for budgeting and money management has been piloted alongside the digital support services. But again it is clear that not everyone will want, or be able, to access such support. Perhaps most tellingly, one of the conclusions reached so far is that the ‘most significant challenge in delivering personal budgeting support was that...trial participants simply did not have enough money each month...’.

Which takes us to the final point about the difference between the current situation and that under Universal Credit: there will be less money. The 2015 Budget proposed cuts to tax credits, some of which George Osborne was forced to postpone after challenge from the House of Lords. But these were not abandoned; they were instead pushed ahead to Universal Credit. Spending on Universal Credit will fall by £3.7 billion (leaving aside temporary protection for some new claimants) compared with the existing system. The impact on families may be mitigated in part for some by rises in the ‘National Living Wage’ and personal tax allowances, and much will depend on individual circumstances. But many working families will receive less from the Universal Credit system than they do now from tax credits. As a new Universal Credit claimant, you will also wait longer for your money; there are seven waiting days (for which you get no money), meaning a wait of about six weeks to the first payment.

So far, the evidence about the impact of Universal Credit is limited. The early evaluations do show some positive effects on moves into work, and increases in job search. The work coaches are generally upbeat about the personalised support they can offer, and some claimants respond well to this. But the main groups brought into the system so far are single people and childless couples. There is a long way to go before all families, with their more complex circumstances and needs, are covered. Simpler systems may work very well for straightforward cases, and this could be a huge gain for Universal Credit. But there are limits to simplification for means-tested benefits, especially when the aim is to target people whose circumstances are not secure.

Universal Credit is supposed to be ‘like work’ and thus make people feel more independent and – to use a Prime Ministerial phrase of the moment – give them back control. But there will be no escaping the state for these millions of people, subject to ongoing means tests, having to report changes in their lives, fulfilling tougher work requirements even if already working, getting less financial support, and for many also being advised how to budget. This is a contradiction at the heart of Universal Credit. It is intended as a simplification, but the intrusion and control embedded in the design are substantial and extend both to more people and to more aspects of their lives.

Note: the above draws on the authors' published research in Social Policy and Society.