No, minister

20 June 2012
Tucked away in Tuesday’s publication by Francis Maude MP of the latest Civil Service Reform Plan was an apparently innocuous proposal in chapter two about improving the quality of policymaking. The government is planning to spend £1 million in a three-year pilot starting next month on “contestable” policymaking, whereby ministers can “commission external policy development (for example, by academics and think-tanks)”. If taken to its logical end-point, what would this mean for public sector procurement? As policymaking arguably sits at the beginning of the supply chain of public service provision, the consequences could be substantial for downstream activities such as logistics, inventory management and transport in many industries. Take the NHS as an example. After reviewing the available evidence, this innovative way of developing policy may result in the conclusion that the government must re-double its efforts to increase healthcare competition in England. (The UK’s devolved administrations are distinctly unenthusiastic about such reforms in their jurisdictions). But giving GPs and their patients yet more power over where, when and exactly what types of treatments should take place is likely to have a major impact on subsequent purchasing decisions within the NHS – from the choice of surgeon to perform an operation, to the supply of a pharmaceutical drug or ambulance service. The outcome would be hospitals and other healthcare providers that are unable to compete would be more likely to close. Indeed, this hypothetical example demonstrates some of the pitfalls of trying to contract-out policy formation. To ask just a few questions:
  • What happens if ministers dislike the conclusions of this external policymaking?
  • How amenable will outside (and presumably independent) experts be to accepting a ministerial steer and/or input from special advisers throughout the policymaking process?
  • Can consultants, academics and think-tanks produce policy conclusions that make contentious trade-offs between different areas of public policy and that can withstand a range of legal challenges?
Political reality – even in the absence of coalition government – means that civil servants would inevitably be expected to keep a close eye and guiding hand on such contracted-out policymaking. I predict that, at best, the many impracticalities of this experiment (from ministers’ perspective) will result in it being quietly abandoned or diluted to the point of irrelevance. At worst, it will end up focusing on ideologically sympathetic outsiders. ☛ David McAlonan is a journalist who has more than 10 years’ experience of working in the UK government
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