Why do institutions fail?

Sarah Spencer
Sarah Spencer

Sarah Spencer (Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, University of Oxford) discuss her article ‘Context, institution or accountability? Exploring the factors that shape the performance of national human rights and equality bodies‘, part of the new issue of Policy & Politics.

In recent months alone we need look no further than the Co-op bank, the UK Border Agency or Staffordshire hospital to find a systemic breakdown in performance, raising the question: why do institutions fail? Where failure is too harsh a judgement, we may nevertheless ask why we so regularly see a marked gap in the private and state sectors between public expectations and the outputs and outcomes that are achieved.

Is it an internal matter – a failure of leadership, poor management, or inadequate resources? If those factors play a part, do they merely reflect structural flaws in systems of regulation and accountability? Or should we be looking more to the external context: a hostile economic or political climate perhaps, or inflated public and media expectations which mean that the institution operates in an environment in which will inevitably and unfairly be seen to fail?

Teasing out the balance of factors that account for the performance of any institution is no easy matter where so many variables are at play and few impacts are measurable. It is necessary, however, if we are to avoid making simplistic assumptions that poor leadership is to blame, let’s say, or harsh budget cuts.

One set of institutions provides ripe territory for exploring these questions: statutory human rights and equality bodies. Britain’s troubled Equality and Human Rights Commission has not been alone in facing criticism of its performance since it was established in 2007: that of its counterparts in Northern Ireland and Ireland have likewise come under fire. The literature on the proliferating number of these bodies world wide, moreover, suggests the challenges they are facing, internally and externally, display some common themes.

Colin Harvey (Queen’s University, Belfast) and I attempt to throw light on this conundrum in ‘Context, institution or accountability? Exploring the factors that shape the performance of national human rights and equality bodies’. A comparative analysis of the six statutory human rights and (or) equality bodies in the UK and Ireland, in which we have both also served as Commissioners, draws on the experiences of 23 other informants who have been closely engaged in the work of these bodies alongside scrutiny of their statutes, secondary legislation and operational reports.

The establishment of these institutions over the past two decades coincided with a renewed confidence in arms’ length regulatory bodies using standard setting, monitoring and enforcement to improve the performance of others. The UN, Council of Europe and European Commission, within their respective mandates, encouraged the global expansion of such bodies, setting minimum standards of independence, accountability and mandate with which they should comply. Expectations in civil society often ran high in the early days, anticipating a step change in the protection of human rights and equality of opportunity. What happened next, the varying strengths (evident in many cases) but also the limitations in delivery require an explanation.

We found no single factor accounted for the performance of the six bodies in our study but differing combinations of positive and negative factors. Comparative analysis was revealing: for instance the more supportive political context in Scotland than that in Northern Ireland, and the accountability of the Scottish Human Rights Commission to the legislature rather than, as for the other bodies, to the executive. Institutional architecture, statutory duties, powers and resources differ markedly, as do the significance of relationships with the UN and European bodies on the one hand and civil society groups on the other.

Beyond the significance of each institution’s varying remit, powers, structure and resource constraints, leadership and effective management were found to be crucial factors, alongside the political acumen necessary to steer the ship through turbulent times. The institutions may take some comfort from the fact that it is those factors which are those most within their control.

Dr Sarah Spencer CBE
Senior Fellow
Centre on Migration, Policy and Society
University of Oxford

Context, institution or accountability? Exploring the factors that shape the performance of national human rights and equality bodies‘, by Sarah Spencer and Colin Harvey, is part of the Policy & Politics January 14 issue (volume 42, number 1) and is available on Ingenta.

Water dripping on stone’? Industry lobbying and UK alcohol policy

Ben Hawkins and Chris Holden
Ben Hawkins and Chris Holden

Ben Hawkins (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) and Chris Holden (University of York) discuss their article ”Water dripping on stone’? Industry lobbying and UK alcohol policy’, part of the new issue of Policy & Politics.

Following the decision by the UK government in July 2013 to shelve plans for minimum unit pricing of alcohol (MUP), questions began to arise about the role and influence of David Cameron’s election strategist Lynton Crosby – who has worked for both the alcohol and tobacco industries – in the abandonment of a policy the government had committed to unequivocally in its 2012 alcohol strategy. The controversy surrounding Crosby was indicative of wider concerns amongst scholars and policy actors that the government had accorded too much influence to the alcohol industry. The previous New Labour government had also been widely criticised for its closeness to the alcohol industry. However, while Labour’s policy agenda was widely in line with industry preferences, the Coalition Government elevated the role of industry actors even further, institutionalising their involvement in the development and execution of policy through the Responsibility Deal Alcohol Network.

In contrast the Scottish National Party administration in Scotland was elected – initially in 2007 as a minority government and subsequently with an outright majority in 2011 – with a clear commitment to introduce MUP. Developments in Scotland represent a shift in UK alcohol policy from an almost exclusive focus on industry favoured measures with a weak evidence base towards interventions such as MUP which the international research consensus suggests is amongst the most likely to reduce harms, but which the majority of the alcohol industry oppose. Despite initial attempts to introduce MUP being voted down by the opposition MSPs in 2010, the measure was eventually passed by the Scottish Parliament in May 2012.

In the context of this highly contested and rapidly evolving policy debate, our article sought to examine the mechanisms through which alcohol industry actors engage in and attempt to influence policy debates. The alcohol industry consists not just of the producers and marketers of alcoholic beverages but the routes to market including pubs and nightclubs in the on-trade and off-licences, convenience stores and larger supermarket chains in the off-trade. We found that industry actors are involved at all stages of the policy process from agenda setting, through policy formulation and legislation, to implementation and evaluation. They seek to engage with a range of policy makers including MPs, MSPs, Ministers, civil servants and members of the public health and NGO community. Even members of the opposition are targeted, especially where a change of administration seems likely and there is potential to shape a future government’s policies from the outset.

Their modus operandi is to seek to establish long term relationships with key policy actors through a range of forums and channels including official policy consultations, party conferences, and All Party Parliamentary Groups on industry-related issues. Contacts are thus both formal and informal and initiated by individual corporations as well as their trade associations and social aspects organisations (e.g. The Portman Group). Many industry actors have extensive personal connections in government or employ outside consultancies and agencies who can provide these. Whilst smaller companies rely more heavily on trade associations and collective representation, larger companies may seek to represent their own interests where these are seen to deviate from the industry or sector more generally or where there is a perceived advantage from adopting a different approach (e.g. to be seen as a leader on a specific issue). All agreed though that the ability to present governments with a united front is a big advantage in pursuing a particular policy outcome.

Long term relationship building with policy makers has the effect not just of creating sustained alliances which can be used to pursue favourable regulation. More fundamentally, it creates the impression that industry actors are stakeholders in the policy making process; key partners who are part of the solution to alcohol related harms and who should have a place at the policy making table as a matter of course. The economic power of industry actors, their ability to provide local and national politicians with good news stories such as the opening of a new supermarket or photo opportunities at a local distillery, guarantees them additional access to politicians.

Positioning themselves as partners in this way is a key objective for industry actors and a key difference with tobacco companies, which are widely excluded from such forums. It affords them great power to shape, inform and delay policy decisions and creates the norm that industry positions should be heard and where possible accommodated. Whilst the position of industry actors in the policy making process is widely criticised by the public health community, it is widely accepted by many officials and politicians. Indeed policy makers explained how welcome industry input can be where they are able to provide resources (both financial and informational), or meet policy objectives through self-regulatory regimes which obviate the need for costly, time consuming legislation and enforcement mechanisms.

The ability to provide these ‘policy goods’ to ministers ensures their voices is heard in any policy deliberations. Where long-term relationships are unable to secure the desired outcomes, however, industry actors are fully prepared to employ short-term issue specific tactics. These include the initiation of legal proceedings, which are now holding up the implementation of minimum pricing in Scotland.

”Water dripping on stone’? Industry lobbying and UK alcohol policy’ is part of the Policy & Politics January 14 issue (volume 42, number 1) and is available on Ingenta.

Gary Craig and Hannah Lewis wonder why ‘multiculturalism is never talked about’

Gary Craig and Hannah Lewis

Gary Craig and Hannah Lewis discuss their article ”Multiculturalism is never talked about’: community cohesion and local policy contradictions in England’, part of the new issue of Policy & Politics.

Ever since immigrants began to come to the UK in significant numbers after the Second World War, governments have sought to find ways to manage relations between the white British ‘host’ community and new arrivals. This was politically problematic from the earliest days in the late 1940s as some British people resented their arrival; these tensions led in some cases to what were dubbed ‘race’ riots, initially blamed on migrants failing to adjust but later recognised to be generated by white hostility, assisted by racist policing responses. Initially, it was widely assumed that immigrants would assimilate into British culture and effectively become British people in every way save for the colour of their skins. This assimilationist approach was later (in the 1960s) recognised as unrealistic and demeaning to migrants’ cultures and identity, and gave way to approaches which were more respectful of migrants’ original identities; structures and organisations were created under the general rubric of race relations or community relations.

Eventually, the official policy response became known as multiculturalism, whereby, within a broad acceptance of British values and norms, migrants were free to maintain many important elements of their own culture. By the early part of the 21st century, however, in the context of increasing diversity and growing minority numbers, and anxiety about the growth of terrorism, some influential political voices were arguing that migrants were establishing what were effectively autonomous communities separate from the mainstream of British society. One such influential voice, Trevor Phillips, argued that Britain was ‘sleepwalking towards segregation’ and that this was the cause of much social and economic dislocation and, indeed, major disturbances in areas where there were significant migrant settlements. This ignored the fact that for many years, migrants had been disproportionately affected by poverty and social exclusion as a result of institutional and individual racism, and heavy-handed policing. The dominant government position now is that ‘multiculturalism is dead’ and the policy clock appears to be edging back towards an assimilationist position under the policy cover of what is now known as community cohesion and other similarly amorphous terms.

This article reports a study of managing local cultural relations in a city in northern England which found that ‘multiculturalism’ is never talked about in local authority policies or practices. The overall picture was one which distanced significantly from an explicit ‘race’ agenda, instead focusing on language, narratives and perceptions of difference and community tensions This shift appeared to be at the expense of tackling inequalities with targeted service provision and the representation of migrant and minority individuals or groups in local initiatives. The result is a dual, apparently contradictory process. The de-emphasis of ‘race’ in community cohesion and equalities policies aimed at managing difference has emerged alongside heightened security concerns, hostile media representations and xenophobia which reify different, Other, identifiable and racialised groups, in particular Muslims. It is now far more difficult to source financial support for migrant community organisations but the difficulties facing these communities – often generated by racist responses – remain.

 ”Multiculturalism is never talked about’: community cohesion and local policy contradictions in England’ is part of the Policy & Politics January 14 issue (volume 42, number 1) and is available on Ingenta.

New Labour, Blue Labour, and conservatism. Whoever wins, the blues will triumph

Jonathan Davies
Jonathan S. Davies

by Jonathan S. Davies, De Montfort University

Active Citizenship: Navigating the Conservative Heartlands of the New Labour Project (Policy & Politics, Volume 40, Number 1) by Jonathan S. Davies, De Montfort University, is available free until 28 February 2014.

One of many bones of contention about New Labour was the extent to which it was faithful to traditional Labour ideas, albeit in a new form, or a radical departure onto the terrain of Thatcherism, neoliberalism and conservatism. The Blair and Brown governments (between 1997 and 2010) represented themselves as modernising traditional social democratic ideas and making them fit for a globalised knowledge economy. Advised and supported by leading intellectuals such as Anthony Giddens, they concluded that with the right policies, a dynamic market economy is entirely compatible with the principles of social justice. In place of redistributive measures to achieve income equality (such as high taxes on the rich), it advocated equality of opportunity; the idea that investing in people is a better way of achieving justice than income redistribution. New Labour appropriated the slogan “no rights without responsibilities”, reflecting the idea that entitlements should be earned.

New Labour supporters saw this complex of ideas as distinguishing them from Thatcherites. While accepting the principles of a global free market, they argued, investing in equality of opportunity created clear red water on the terrain social policy. In this paper, I argue that in fact New Labour’s social policy agenda drew inspiration from conservatism, not social democracy. I use the speeches of ministers and government documents to demonstrate this point in six different areas of active citizenship policy: learning, democratic renewal, volunteering, family policy, personal thrift and public consumption. Not only did New Labour draw explicitly from Conservative thinkers, it also utilised ideas fashionable in the later years of Margaret Thatcher’s government and throughout John Major’s. Perhaps most strikingly, in announcing that there should be no rights without responsibilities Tony Blair turned out to be plagiarising none other than Margaret Thatcher. In short, I found strong continuities between Thatcherism and New Labour in precisely those areas that New Labour sought to differentiate itself. I argue that throughout the economic and social policy fields, New Labour broke from traditional social democratic ideas and instead maintained continuity with the ideas of Conservative forebears; and by extension, continuity with the neoliberal agenda of free markets and right wing morality as a whole.

Events since the General Election of 2010 have only confirmed my suspicions. The Labour Party has flirted with the reactionary “Blue Labour” ideas of Maurice Glasman. Blue Labour openly advocates the conservative view of citizenship that motivated the Blair and Brown governments, promoting traditional values of “family, faith and flag”. The Conservatives, for their part, have Philip Blonde’s “Red Tory” and its “big society” derivative. Lambasted and ridiculed by Labour as a cover story for austerity cuts, the “big society” quickly disappeared from public discourse. But the idea is very persistent. Big society commitments to rolling back the nanny state, de-centralising power, promoting personal responsibility and neighbourliness were always familiar themes in the speeches of New Labour ministers including Tony Blair, David Blunkett, Gordon Brown, Alan Milburn and Jack Straw.

While distancing himself from embarrassing comments by Glasman, Ed Miliband has been happy to associate himself with Blue Labour thinking. If he is elected Prime Minister in 2015, there is no reason to think he will abandon those ideas. On the contrary, conservatism looks like the only game in town. And it is in any case a far happier bedfellow for neoliberal economics than the socialist principles of egalitarianism and working class solidarity. It looks as if Britain will continue with the ‘blues’, whoever wins the next election.

Active Citizenship: Navigating the Conservative Heartlands of the New Labour Project  (Policy & Politics, Volume 40, Number 1) by Jonathan S. Davies, De Montfort University, is available free until 28 February 2014.

The politics of behaviour change: Nudge, neoliberalism and the state

Will LeggettWill Leggett, School of Government and Society, University of Birmingham, discusses his article, ‘The politics of behaviour change: Nudge, neoliberalism and the state’.

In 2013 there was controversy when it emerged in the UK that unemployed jobseekers had unwittingly been used as guinea pigs for a government experiment. They had been told to complete an online psychometric questionnaire called ‘MyStrengths’, with the threat of benefit withdrawal if they did not comply. Having entered their answers, participants were presented with apparently personalised electronic messages of ‘positive reinforcement’ eg that their answers had demonstrated a ‘love of learning’. But it later transpired that no matter what answers were entered, everybody received exactly the same messages. The real objective had been to indiscriminately instil positive psychology among the participants, rather than to meaningfully engage with them.

What had been exposed was a textbook, covert ‘behaviour change’ intervention. From the everyday choices of individuals (what to eat, to recycle) to the activities of errant corporations, behaviour change is a contemporary political buzzword. Of course, politics has always been about trying to shape attitudes and behaviour in some form, so what makes this agenda particularly prominent now? Three related factors stand out. The first is an increasingly complex, differentiated and individualised society, which presents challenges (eg in public health, climate change) that only widespread behaviour change on the part of both individuals and institutions can address. The second factor is political and ideological context. Thirty years of neoliberalism successfully discredited faith in direct, ‘command and control’ state action. The third factor is academic and intellectual, in the form of the rapid rise of the behavioural sciences, led by behavioural economics and psychology, which themselves operate in the advancing shadow of neuroscience. In the UK, these developments came to a head in the enthusiastic take up by the Coalition Government of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s bestselling book on ‘Nudge’ economics, and the corresponding establishment of a ‘Behavioural Insight Team’ – or ‘Nudge Unit’ – in the heart of Whitehall. The Unit has a wide-ranging brief across government, and its fingerprints were unmistakably on last year’s controversial jobseeker/positive psychology experiment.

My article in Policy & Politics examines the interesting assumptions about human action that are presented by Nudge. Most notably, Nudge moves away from the discredited idea that we are fully rational, consistent calculating machines, and instead tries to capture the role of our emotions, snap decisions and fallibility in making choices in various contexts. In particular, it draws our attention to the way our behaviour can be influenced by changes to our ‘choice environment’ (eg by changing the layout of products on supermarket shelving). Nudge’s argument is that policy should go with the grain of this all too human view of humans, rather than fighting against it in the hope we will make fully rational, optimum choices. For example, our inertia makes us prone to go with default options. Rather than futilely trying to overcome human inertia per se, it can be harnessed by policymakers using the default option eg making ‘opt in’ the default with regard to organ donation.

I also explore the complex and paradoxical politics of the behaviour change agenda. Thaler and Sunstein presented their project as a new ‘libertarian paternalism’. It is paternalistic, because nudgers are attempting to promote the best interests of ‘nudgees’ (eg to lose weight). But it is also libertarian in the sense that there is no compulsion, and the individual always ultimately has the option to choose differently/opt-out if they wish. Unsurprisingly, having set itself up as a new libertarian-paternalism, criticisms of Nudging have poured in from both these of these traditions. Paternalists (typically on the statist left) see in Nudge the ideological retreat of state action and responsibility for public goods. Conversely, libertarians (from both left and right) see Nudge as a sinister state incursion into our very brains and decision-making. This ambiguity is reflected in the party political take up of Nudge. Behavioural economic ideas were first encouraged in the UK by New Labour, and might be seen as a classic instance of the ‘nanny statism’ they were often accused of. And yet the behaviour change agenda has been even more enthusiastically co-opted by David Cameron and his anti-statist inner circle.

Beyond these familiar dichotomies, more thought needs to be given to the ways that behaviour change is recasting the state-citizen relation, and what alternative forms the behaviour change state might take. A ‘Nudging state’ risks depoliticising and diminishing our faith in positive state action. In the Nudging model, the state is just another voice trying to grab consumer attention in an already crowded market: it becomes no different to the private sector marketers and advertisers who have been subtly shaping our preferences for many decades. An alternative, social democratic approach could use the behaviour change agenda to reassert the importance of an active state, but in a way that develops more empowering models of citizen engagement than traditional command-and-control approaches. The important insights of behavioural theories should be heeded, but the traditional case for state regulation, mandates and bans needs to be sustained: it is increasingly clear some behaviour change will require a ‘shove’ rather than a nudge (eg smoking in public places). Simultaneously, the case needs to be made that the state is the only institution that can protect citizens against potentially undesirable or damaging attempts to shape their behaviour. This might take the form of direct regulation (eg curbing advertising aimed at children). More creatively, it could involve raising awareness of ubiquitous attempts to shape decision-making, and equipping citizens with the psychological and deliberative toolkit to define and implement – individually and collectively – their own behaviour change agenda. This would necessarily be linked to broader questions about the good society, rather than just immediate ‘choice environments’. So what emerges is a more complex vision of the modern social democratic state, in an age where behaviour change is an integral objective. Crucially, this recognises that behaviour change is not politically neutral, as some of Nudge’s advocates like to suggest. Instead, it raises fundamental questions about the citizen’s relationship to the state and the market, about which social democrats and neoliberals will have very different things to say.

The politics of behaviour change: Nudge, neoliberalism and the state’ is part of the Policy & Politics January 14 issue (volume 42, number 1) and is available on Ingenta.

Policy & Politics: January 2014 issue

Policy and Politics coverThe January 2014 issue of Policy & Politics is now available in print and online.

In this issue our authors consider nudge, multiculturalism, ethnic residential stability, lobbying, policy translation, human rights bodies, security regulation, and procurement. We take in policy issues including water and alcohol, and include conceptual debates around neo-liberalism and legitimation. The edition has an international flavour, with perspectives taking in the UK, Turkey, Ireland, and Vietnam, as well as considering ideas around issues of policy transfer between states. We have articles that are both empirically based and more theoretical contributions.

Will Leggett’s article critiques nudge by drawing on literature including Foucault and other sociological perspectives on state-citizen relations. He suggests ‘a more explicitly political, social-democratic model of the behaviour change state’ is needed. Hannah Lewis and Gary Craig analyse the idea of multiculturalism by contrasting local initiatives and central discourses in the UK on the issue. In a related piece Katherine Farley and Tim Blackman consider ethnic residential segregation in England. They argue that, despite the political rhetoric around the ‘problem’ of segregation, there is scant evidence at neighbourhood level to support such a stance. Ben Hawkins and Chris Holden analyse the relationships between the alcohol industry and policy makers using qualitative research data. They seek to show how industry actors access and influence policy-makers. The way that ideas spread is discussed by Farhad Mukhtarov. Using the water industry, he moves on the policy transfer literature by introducing the notion of policy translation, and applies it to a case in Turkey. Sarah Spencer and Colin Harvey consider the performance of human rights and equality bodies in the UK and Ireland. By means of comparative analysis, they seek to explain the gap between expectations around and performance of these bodies. Sangeeta Khorana, William Kerr and Nishikant Mishra offer a study on Vietnam’s participation in the World Trade Organization’s Government Procurement Agreement. They suggest an inverse relationship between the costs and benefits of institutional reform to support liberalisation.

This issue is available on Ingenta. Look out for blog pieces on selected articles in the issue in the coming weeks.

David Sweeting, Associate Editor