219: How to know when government doesn’t have the answers
It is a self-evident truth of modern politics that government has to pretend to have all the answers. But as we all know that is very far from the reality. Here are some examples of when it is very clear that government doesn’t quite know what to do….
Too often, the media and political opponents (from inside as well as outside) would take a swipe at any government that admits to not having a clear policy agenda. That need not be a sign of weakness but could instead represent a more inclusive approach to policy development. Instead, it has to pretend to be completely on top of everything.
There are though some tell-tale ways of spotting when the bravado of government is covering up for a lack of real policy.
- ‘It is up to local authorities / communities to decide…’ – this statement invariably means that ministers know that something has to change but can’t quite decide what to do. On one level the statement is magnanimous, on another it is weak. A variety on this message is that Ministers have some ideas but lack the political will to impose them, or have an idea and wish to disguise its imposition.
- Technology – when any Minister or Shadow Minister talks about the problem solving potential of technology, it invariably means that they cannot work out what to do. ‘Technology’ is also a catch-all term for anything vaguely digital that will arrive at some ill-defined point in the future to solve a problem.
- Holding an inquiry – as soon as government launches a review or an inquiry you know that at least 12 months has been added to the policy-making process and that decision-making has been postponed. Having an inquiry does not mean that any of the recommendations will necessarily be implemented and very often there will have been a whole stack of previous inquiries / reviews into the same issue before but without the conclusions being accepted by government (see also the setting up of independent commissions and expert groups or councils).
- ‘We want to hear a range of views…’ – this is similar to holding an inquiry but without the added benefit of any timescales being placed on the issue. Once these initial conversations have been had then some more clarity on process could emerge – Green Paper, White Paper, consultation etc – or everything may simply go quiet.
- Make a minister responsible – ministers always have a range of responsibilities and government can show how seriously it takes an issue but appointing one who can take charge of it. The issue may well require the level of attention given by such a move but it is often that the appointment is the sum total of the attention. Instead of being a catalyst for real change, there is a danger of it being seen as a gimmick. (see Tsars under New Labour…)
One you recognise these signs then you can consider your own engagement programme as well as utilising these new channels established by government. The influence may be required less on the prominence of the issue and more on keeping it front and centre of a Minister’s attention.
In other words, just because a government gives the impression of being in charge or having a clear commitment to an issue does not mean that the influencing strategy is complete. The job may actually have become a whole lot harder.