What civil servants learn by getting out of Whitehall

Whitehall in Central London

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Politicians regularly accuse each other of being out of touch with the people they represent, but what about civil servants?

Whitehall's brightest can too easily be characterised as policy wonks working in ivory towers with little experience of the outside world, either Machiavellian Sir Humphreys or hapless mandarins, such as Mr Dundridge in 1980s television drama Blott on the Landscape.

While these stereotypes no longer hold good, if they ever did, it is clear there has long been a gap between policymakers and the people whose lives are affected by their decisions.

A new initiative, backed by the Big Lottery Fund and Institute for Government, has been trying to begin to address this.

Officials from a number of government departments have been spending time with voluntary organisations providing frontline services to help them better understand the impact that their policies have on the most vulnerable in society.

'Wall of bureaucracy'

By "pairing" civil servants with community volunteers and local authority staff, the year-long scheme was intended to help those at different ends of the policy pipeline to share insights and best practice.

Start Quote

The lives of people who are vulnerable and excluded are messy and complicated”

End Quote Nicola Hughes Institute for Government

The Connecting Policy with Practice initiative is aimed at making policies coming out of Whitehall more "bomb-proof" - increasingly important at a time when voluntary groups are providing more public services and being paid by results.

One of the 15 civil servants taking part in the scheme, Pat Russell, from the Department for Work and Pensions, told a recent seminar that her involvement with the Scout Association and a charity dealing with offenders with mental health issues had made her rethink what constituted "open policy making".

And Ben Connah, from the Ministry of Justice, said his time with a social enterprise organisation in Cornwall had made him aware of the variety of organisations providing help to victims of crime which were not getting any of the limited state funding available.

Their input, he says, could offer useful lessons as more powers and funding for victim support are delegated to police commissioners.

'Not rocket science'

From the other side of the fence, Nick O'Shea, from the south London charity Resolving Chaos, says a lot of money could potentially be saved by stopping problems from escalating to the point where vulnerable individuals had "to go to A&E time and time and time again".

But he warns any attempt to rethink the provision of local health and social services was likely to encounter a "massive wall of bureaucracy".

Simon Cadell as civil servant Mr Dundridge in 1980s TV drama Blott on the Landscape Getting policy right first time around can stop crises happening later

The Big Lottery Fund, which allocates 40% of National Lottery proceeds to good causes, says its involvement with the project is in step with its decision to shift the focus of its grant funding from respite help for those most in need to early intervention and preventative measures.

It is allocating £600m over the next decade to a series of social policy initiatives focused on long-term challenges like youth unemployment, early years care and the impact of an ageing society.

While there are a range of targets - such as increasing the number of young people finding work and the number of children whose life chances are improved - it says it is as much about introducing a "different atmosphere and mindset" around policymaking as solving intractable problems or saving money.

"There is not much which is rocket science in terms of the issues that are unattended," says Dharmendra Kanani, the organisation's England Director. "But this is a very serious attempt to see if we can do something better to make the connection between policy and practice."

'Disconnects'

While cross-departmental working has become much more common in recent years - the Troubled Families programme is drawing on the resources of six government departments - the Institute for Government said the project showed there were still too many "silos" in Whitehall.

Nicola Hughes, a senior researcher at the institute, says certain basic "disconnects" need to be overcome to help improve policies and ensure better outcomes, including the temptation to try and create a one-size-fits all solution to problems.

Also important, she adds, are consistency in policy making, the careful use of language, involving end-users directly in policy design and being wary of perverse incentives - such as enforcing statutory duties to provide certain services which actually exclude those with multiple needs.

"The lives of people who are vulnerable and excluded are messy and complicated," she says.

"Services work best when they work collaboratively, deal with the whole person and start with their needs."

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