368: Independent reviews are only the start
Governments love to commission independent reviews. They are launched and report back with significant fanfare. But all too often they are then immediately consigned to history. The reality is that they should be seen as the start of public affairs engagement, not an end point.
Ministers are instinctively attracted by the idea of getting an outsider to look at a policy area. By going beyond the usual machinery of government, ministers can bring in new thinking. The adviser can feel unconstrained. They can challenge and ‘think the unthinkable’.
But what makes them attractive can also make the results unpalatable. Ministers may think they want radical ideas but when the results are revealed, they are simply too hot to handle. The radical feels too radical. That can make them too far removed from what voters will accept or what the Government could possibly get through Parliament. The results could, if accepted, open them up to criticism or give too much potential ammunition to opponents (from their own side as well).
Some reports are independent so that governments can show they are tackling difficult issues. The Dilnot Report on social care arguably remains the preeminent study of the costs and potential solutions. It dealt with an issue that all governments had long put in the ‘too difficult’ pile but still it remains unimplemented.
Governments always have plausible deniability when it comes to the outcome of an independent review. They can thank the author and then move on if they do not like the answers received.
History is littered with welcomed, but subsequently abandoned independent reviews. Recently we have had the publication of a Food Strategy which failed to include the significant recommendations of the independent review that proceeded it. The author of the review has suggested that only about half the recommendations have been included by the Government.
There was also the publication of the Khan tobacco review. That contained lots of very radical ideas, but we do not yet know whether government will implement them.
The list of largely ignored independent reviews is long – Frank Field MP, Mary Portas and Sir Rod Eddington are just a few that sprung instantly to mind. An internet search reveals many more ‘official reviews’ and ‘commissions’ that are only partially implemented, at best.
Role of public affairs
It is essential that help and input is provided to relevant reviews from the outset. This means taking the review as seriously as you would any other area of government policy development even if there is some scepticism regarding the outcomes.
But the publication should trigger other engagement activity as well to help maintain the pressure. Consider how you can do this and examine potential scenarios, such as those below:
- new people – ministers move, governments change but the policy will still need to addressed and new audiences may be open to you;
- solutions – the recommendations of the initial report may be too radical, but would some adaptation make them deliverable?
- continued pressure – consider how you could try and hold government to account for the recommendations over a period of time;
- experts – consider the possibility of continuing to work with the chairs (if they are not too disillusioned or worn out by this point!) Some may be vocal in calling out the government for their perceived failures and be happy to continue to do so;
- internal pressure points – is there dissent within the government that could offer some hope for the future?
- returns – there may the option of bringing the recommendations back later.
The process of the review is important as is the publication of the recommendations. But even if government is not prepared to implement the ideas, then be prepared to keep the fight going.