Injecting fairness into policy making
Injecting fairness into policy making

Injecting fairness into policy making

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This week’s newsletter looks at how fairness can make policy making better in three ways (process, people and politics).

Will Snell

Chief Executive Fairness Foundation

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How fairness can improve the three Ps of policy making

Wonk land has been buzzing recently with discussions about how to improve policy making. In my head, these fall broadly into three groups of issues (the three Ps – process, people, and politics).

Firstly, process. The Institute for Government published a report in March called Better Policy Making, which identified a set of ‘chronic policy problems’ such as low productivity, poor further education, regional inequality, and crises in housing and social care. It suggested that these issues all stem from a set of weaknesses in the way that the government designs and delivers policies. These include short-termism, a deficit of specialist knowledge, poor implementation, poor cross-government working and Whitehall’s resistance to learning from outside. (OK, it’s not all process, but bear with me.) The Wonk Watch blog wrote about this report, agreeing with many of its conclusions while criticising it for being too “Whitehall-centric”, and for ignoring the fact that many of these policy problems also require confronting powerful vested interests (such as homeowners).

Secondly, people. Failures in policy making were the theme of another report published in March by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, and authored by Jonathan Slater, former permanent secretary at the Department for Education (Fixing Whitehall’s broken policy machine). Slater argues that civil service policy advice is “too often disconnected from reality” because Whitehall officials are not expected to engage with the public, with the result that civil servants show “surprisingly little interest” in what those who use or deliver public services think.

Thirdly, politics. In a recent blog post, Why is British politics broken? (paywall), Sam Freedman (himself a senior fellow at the Institute for Government) identified three ‘destructive trends’ in politics. One was “a set of demographic shifts that have made older homeowners the key voter group; creating a dramatic divergence between good policy and good politics”, which means that “protecting the value of property has become paramount to winning elections”. This has thwarted much-needed policies to tax wealth more, to reform the planning system, to build onshore wind farms, and to invest in childcare and education.

Freedman called on today’s politicians to follow the example of previous governments who made a positive case for radical reform, even if it went against powerful vested interests, pointing out that “public policy isn’t supposed to be an accounting exercise; it’s the way we build a better world together”. He quoted Keynes, who wrote in 1925 that when we’re discussing the ideal future state of society, this “has to be tackled in the first instance from the ethical side rather than the standpoint of technical economic efficiency”. As Freeman notes, “the welfare state wasn’t created because we counted the pennies in the jar and found we’d saved up enough to establish the NHS. We took a punt and built the future we wanted – and, by creating a more inclusive economy, that future then paid for itself.”

Guess what? Focusing on fairness can help to address all three Ps.

Process first. There are plenty of voices out there calling for formal measures to require policymakers to take issues of fairness, justice and equality into account when designing (and delivering) policies. For example, the Equality Trust and Just Fair are spearheading the #1forEquality campaign, calling on central government to enact the ‘socio-economic duty’, section 1 of The Equality Act 2010, which would require public bodies (such as local authorities) to adopt transparent and effective measures to address the inequalities that result from differences in occupation, education, place of residence or social class.

The Today for Tomorrow campaign is promoting a Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill, which  would require the government to act in the interest of future generations by working to prevent long-term risks from materialising and giving them a voice in decision-making. Fair by Design collaborates with regulators, government, businesses, and the social justice sector to design out the ‘poverty premium’ (the extra costs people on low incomes and in poverty pay for essential products and services). These are all good examples of how the government could do a better job of embedding fairness principles into the policy making process.

People next (OK, and a bit more process). Some people think that civil servants should be more specialised, others that specialisation is part of the problem. Both arguments are true in some respects. And both are consistent with Jonathan Slater’s contention that civil servants need to be more exposed to the reality of other people’s lives (as well as being drawn from a more diverse group in society). As our own recently commissioned polling (to be published very soon) makes clear, fairness has strong public support. So fairness could be a useful framework for prodding civil servants to engage more with public priorities.

But what does fairness mean, I hear you ask? We set out a starter-for-ten definition last year in The Fair Necessities (and the five ‘fair necessities’ all have strong public backing, as our polling will show). Civil servants could reasonably be asked to make sure that policies would deliver improvements (or at least not make things worse) on each of those five things (fair opportunities, reward, exchange, fundamentals and treatment), having first spent more time talking to real people to understand how their lives might be affected.

Last and definitely not least, politics. Not much will change in policy terms unless the politics changes. As Sam Freedman says, governments of all stripes have given into inexorable political logic by pandering to the perceived priorities of wealthy older homeowners, who vote more than other groups.

How to address this? Can we deploy a compelling set of moral and economic arguments to persuade this group that a fairer society is in their / their families’ / society’s interests, and that this means taking some short-term pain (taxing wealth, sorting out housing) in return for some long-term gain (fairer, better, more secure society)?

This sounds like an uphill battle. However, it may be a battle that is already partly won.

Research suggests that policy choices are driven more by ‘structural power’ than voter preferences. What this means in practice is that the most important thing to change is policymakers’ perceptions of the potential behavioural responses of powerful groups (such as our wealthy older homeowners), rather than the actual attitudes of those groups.

Maybe policymakers think that their target audience are more selfish and short-termist than they actually are? If we can frame the problems and the solutions in ways that attract support from these key demographics, and then communicate the level of that support back to policymakers, perhaps we can start to challenge the political consensus that acts as a constant brake on progress towards building a fairer society…

Reads of the week

Little Village have published a report suggesting that over one million babies and young children are living in poverty.

The Institute for Public Policy Research has launched the Commission on Health and Prosperity, which will explore the hypothesis that a fairer country is a healthier one, and that a healthier country is a more prosperous one.

Bright Blue has published A vision for tax reform in the 2020s, which offers principles and policy ideas for an ambitious agenda of tax reform to tackle the leading economic, social and environmental challenges of the 2020s and beyond.

Sonia Sodha asks in The Observer whether it is fair that we spend so much helping middle-class children into adulthood through government spending on universities.

The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies has published The Usual Suspects, which finds that a landmark 2016 Supreme Court judgment that was expected to lead to a reduction in joint enterprise prosecutions and convictions for homicide has had no discernible effect.

The Guardian has written about new ONS data showing that the gap in healthy life expectancy between the poorest and richest in England is continuing to grow (and has now reached 19.3 years for girls and and 18.6 years for boys), while overall life expectancy for the poorest has fallen.

The BBC reports on YouGov polling commissioned by Shelter, which suggests that 227,000 private renters in England have been served a "no fault" eviction notice in the past three years.

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