» Can less government mean better outcomes?

11 January, 2011

In making a virtue from necessity, what positive outcomes may result from the coalition government’s interest in de-centralisation and desire to review regulation? This was the key question posed by Lord Lindsay, Chairman of the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) at the organisation’s recent Think Tank. In particular, speakers were asked to consider how spending reviews and the related issues of reducing regulation and bureaucracy might lead to the greater use of alternative measures such as accreditation, inspection and certification. Three keynote speakers provided the formal response: Kate Marshall, Deputy Director, Strategy Unit, Cabinet Office, Lord Michael Bichard, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Government and Sarah Veale, Head of Equality and Employment Rights at the TUC.

The challenge of change
Kate Marshall focused on the challenge that government faces when tackling pressing policy issues, and how few can be addressed without thinking about the behaviour of individuals. Behavioural economics and behavioural science had provided valuable insights into why individuals don’t always behave as perfectly ‘rational’ human beings. Marshall invited the audience to consider how difficult it sometimes is to achieve a seemingly simple and ultimately beneficial personal goal, like increasing our savings, or keeping up a fitness regime.

Marshall said Governments often consider regulation when the long-term wellbeing of individuals or the wider community could be at risk. In responding to these situations, she confirmed the Coalition’s desire to develop policies that were less intrusive and imposed fewer costs on both business and society. Understanding how people behave and make decisions, and finding innovative ways to help ‘nudge’ individuals into making better, more informed choices were at the heart of the Government’s policy agenda.

Devolved power: the need for specific limits and clear accountability
Lord Bichard drew upon his experience in Local and central Government but also focused on the need for intelligent solutions. In particular he was concerned about the risks that overly detailed and prescriptive targets can represent – but he also highlighted the need to pass responsibility out from the centre and away from specialist silos.

He saw successful government as one that is focussed on outcomes rather than inputs and one that ensures accountability is spread logically. He emphasised the need to redesign the system not the structure. He speculated that less government is successful when it recognises the benefits of early intervention and prevention, and places the responsibility for this close to the ‘coal face’.

Transformational rather than transactional change
The final presentation from Sarah Veale came to a similar conclusion to the previous speakers, but from a slightly different view point. Focusing on the needs of employees and consumers as the potential beneficiaries of less government – she started by highlighting the risks this may represent – particularly the laws of unexpected consequences. Regulation can be removed, but only where there is an alternative solution, such as strong union intervention and good buy-in from the relevant parties. The most successful route to lessening government is to encourage and set regulations that are led and implemented from the grass roots up.

The ‘one in, one out’ approach was discussed as an opportunity to reduce poorly functioning and unnecessary regulations. Veale liked the concept but highlighted the difficulty in achieving this. Civil servants and politicians have historically viewed the introduction of regulation as a key career achievement. This driver will need to be mitigated if the goal of less legislation is to be achieved. Will the kudos of removing legislation become as recognised as that of making it? There will also need to be a clear measurement by which the replacement is marked against the outgoing regulation, in order to ensure it is ‘better’. The same system of measurement is needed to ensure the strategies being considered as an alternative to regulation are actually an improvement. The use of accreditation and standards has proved effective, but they are not suitable for every area. Veale concluded that in promoting alternatives to regulation, it is vital to ensure one mechanism is not substituted with another in a process where everything changes, but the final result remains much the same.

The audience for the Think Tank was drawn from organisations and individuals representing or involved with government departments and agencies, small & medium sized enterprises and other business associations. Key points were raised in the open discussion highlighting the role of the media in influencing judgement, both for and against regulation. Illustrations of this being the typical labelling of new regulations as nanny state, jobsworth and interfering bureaucrats compared with campaigns for action – such as the demand for regulations for dangerous dogs. The consensus was that government should have a tool kit of approaches which are used in consultation with all the interested parties.

Summing up the debate Lord Lindsay, UKAS Chairman, said. “It seems there is general agreement that better outcomes can be achieved with less government so long as care is taken over what fills the void. A menu or package approach that matches the right solution to the problem is the preferred route. Standards and accreditation should be considered as a valuable part of this multi-layered approach. However the outcome or value of a proposed solution should be the over-riding focus, rather than the process involved in implementing it. If this balance can be achieved, it will be to the benefit of Government, business and society as a whole.”