Why is everything going wrong? 3: Detail

by | 13 Oct 2021

It is the detail of a policy more than the concept which will determine its fate - but you can't retrofit good, effective detail onto a bad idea

There is a good-practice way to develop policy. Ideally it should roughly go identification (find what needs change) then analysis (find out why and how it needs changed) then concept (turn the analysis into a basic proposal) then purpose (it is important to be able to state what purpose a concept is delivering) and then detail (the actual nuts and bolts of how the policy will be built).

Give or take, this is how good policy is made – for example it describes clearly the path via which the National Health Service was created.

It is worth noting that ‘announcement’ is not a crucial part of the development of policy because unless public awareness is essential, a good policy would deliver good outcomes whether it is announced or not.

In a democracy it is of course essential to announce a policy, but that isn’t integral to the creation of the policy. It should therefore only take place at the point at which concept and purpose are nailed down or it will cause confusion. Detail emanates from analysis, concept and purpose.

But the detail is fundamentally important. Policy is not ‘an idea’, it is a set of implementable actions and every individual action matters or it is likely the policy will fail at the implementation stage or (if you’re lucky) be redesigned successfully during the implementation process.

The development of announcements is entirely different. That process goes narrative requirement (why are you making an announcement) then positioning (what is it you want an audience to take from an announcement) then scripting (work out how you’re going to describe it to have the desired impact on your audience) – and there is a ‘floating element’ of justification.

If you want to make a statement in a speech or in a media announcement it must have some justification to back it up. If your ‘meta narrative’ (the underlying meaning you want your audience to take away) is ‘I care about X’ you need something to demonstrate that you are taking this seriously; ‘which is why I’m doing Y’.

If you create a policy development process in the image of an announcement development process you will create irreconcilable problems. You start seeing what should be the ‘concept’ stage as the ‘justification’ stage. Rather than producing an action which fixes a problem you create an action that justifies a statement.

At this point there is a severe risk that these then clash – the thing that justifies the announcement may not turn out to be the thing that solves the problem, because the analysis of the problem has not yet been undertaken.

Policy is not ‘an idea’, it is a set of implementable actions and every individual action matters or it is likely the policy will fail at the implementation stage

One of the most consistent errors the current Scottish Government makes is a direct result of this clash. The education agenda was announced before the detail was developed and tested for whether it would work or not. The National Energy Company was announced before a concept of what it was or what it was for was properly considered. Incorporating the UN Rights of the Child was announced before it was checked for legality – and so on.

Too often when the meta narrative is ‘I care about X’ the justification turns out to be ‘so I’ve set up a working group’. On a remarkable number of occasions this has been hastily retrofitted after an announcement – a three-year commission to discover Scotland doesn’t have the powers to implement a Universal Basic Income or a 5G working group to try to retrofit some credibility to the vainglorious boast that Scotland would be a ‘world leader in 5G’.

Sometimes you cannot just create detail to fit a story if the story predates the detail. Sometimes reality prevents the possibility of details being produced (all the effort in the world will not make Scotland a ‘world leader’ in 5G). The process of wrestling details into shape can delay the failure of an initiative – but it cannot prevent the failure of an initiative.

The case study was in education. A pre-announced strategy fell apart over a number of years because it wasn’t possible to create and deliver the detail necessary to implement the strategy inside the realities of the Scottish education system as it was. But one of the key reasons for why everything is going wrong now is that we have reached the end of that delay process in many policy areas.

Policy is not an act of willpower but of cooperation and work. That’s the ‘magic’. If you open with the ‘ta da!’, the chances are the trick won’t work.

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