Making policy in theory and practice, edited by Hugh Bochel and Sue Duncan

Policy Press, 2007, ix + 251, pp, pbk, 1 861 349033, £24.99, hbk 1 861 349040, £65

In the introduction to this important book by policy-makers and academics, the editors review the history of theory about policy-making, study recent changes in policy-making (privatisation, audit, partnership, arms-length agencies, evidence-based policies and the effects of multi-level government and of Europeanisation), and then introduce the nine principles of policy-making (drawn from a 1999 government paper) on which the subsequent chapters are based, that is, that policy should be forward-looking, outward-looking (with cross-national policy learning), innovative, flexible and creative, evidence-based, inclusive, joined-up, constantly reviewed, constantly evaluated, and always learning lessons from experience.

Each of the nine chapters is by a pair of authors: one a social policy academic, the other involved in the policy-making process. ‘The views expressed in this book are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of their employers’, and there are places where a critical stance is taken in relation to whether the Government has followed its own nine principles (see, for instance, the discussion of the Government’s review of the Child Support Agency on pp.164ff). The authors often take a critical look at the principles on which their chapters are based, and the editors, in their concluding chapter, discuss critically the principles and the extent to which they can be put into practice. ‘Given that [the nine principles] have been a major plank in the policy-making process for nearly a decade, it is perhaps surprising that there has been little recent attention given, either in civil service or academic literature, to refining the nine elements of policy making’ (p.214).

No, actually it isn’t. Policy is made by politicians, and not by the civil servants and other officials listed as authors (though they clearly have a filtering role and plenty of influence); and politicians are driven by short-term electoral considerations, the interests of influential stakeholders (such as the Murdoch press), and their own interests, and not by any set of principles, however worthy.

Reading this book, you are left wondering why no serious attempt has been made to reform the tax and benefits system in the UK, and in particular to implement a Citizen’s Income. A Citizen’s Income would serve well almost any conceivable future economic and social configuration; it would learn from experiments in Namibia and elsewhere and from universal pensions in New Zealand and other countries; it would be innovative, flexible and creative, and would enhance people’s ability to innovate, to work flexibly, and to be creative; it would be evidence-based (Child Benefit is the evidence); it would be inclusive (by definition); it would join up the different stages of people’s lives, employment transitions, and many of the fissures in our society; it would be simple to review and to evaluate; and it would learn lessons from past experience (and particularly from the disincentive effects of our current system).

The reason it hasn’t happened is that it’s in no politician’s short-term electoral interests.

This book is a thorough exploration of the social policy process in terms of nine principles published in a Government paper, and the many examples given show that the theory works well in relation to clearly bounded policy areas – such as zero-tolerance policing, driven partly by ‘looking outwards’ to New York (pp.51ff) – where the parameters of the debate have already been set by political interests. What it doesn’t do is explain major policy decisions (such as the invasion of Iraq: not in the index) or major decisions not taken (Citizen’s Income). For these issues the final page is relevant: ‘Ultimately policy making is political’ (p.217). Quite!

Everyone involved in policy-making should read this book. It is well researched and it really is related to policy-making practice. Now what we need is a book by the politicians telling us how policy is really made and why.