Policy Making through a Public Prism
By Tony Stoller
In this lecture, Tony Stoller, Chair of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust, considers the relationship between popular discourse and policy-making. Drawing upon recent examples from a wide range of sectors, including adult social care, welfare reform, housing and broadcasting, he assesses the impact of giving undue priority to managing public debate over the task of designing and delivering effective policies.
We no longer inhabit the age of mere ‘Government by spin’. What we have now is a completely new paradigm for public policy-making, dominated and managed by what we can call the ‘new elite’. It is a coalition of politicians, policy wonks, commentators, journalists and media owners, who both shape and comment upon policy. They are the masters now, and they jointly take part in a symbiotic dance, which the public is encouraged to believe they are part of, but from which they are in reality consciously excluded.
For the moment, let us just say that we can now identify the closest of inter-relationships between many media owners and commentators on the one hand, and elected politicians, policymakers and some senior officials on the other, going beyond anything which had been normal practice in the past. Within this ‘new elite’, think tanks have taken over much of the policy-proposing role of the professional civil service, as the latter’s numbers are reduced. That potentially widens the circle of policy-making, and is proving valuable in the devolved administrations in that way, but it also means that a century and a half of civil service expertise is being sidelined. Add to that the extraordinary revolving doors between posts in Government, think-tanks, special advisers, media and regulation, and you have a new paradigm run by a ‘new elite’.
The changed relationship between those whose job it is to make policy, and those whose nominal role is to report on and criticise it, is undermining our ability as a nation to formulate, properly debate, and then implement public policy.
The language of ‘benefits’ and the ‘welfare state’ have become ‘dog-whistle’ words of implicit abuse. Politicians assert that housing benefit is designed for “those who lie in bed with the curtains drawn”. Those on benefits are ‘scroungers’, ‘benefits cheats’, and the like. The picture we have of those who are poor is that provided by television programmes like Shameless, reinforced by the patronising toleration of stereotypes by members of audiences in television programmes from Question Time to The Jeremy Kyle show.
The media presentation of ‘facts’ which are nothing of the sort exacerbates the problem. For instance, we all read about, and eventually subliminally come to believe in, the supposed massive problem of teenage girls who get pregnant in order to get themselves local authority housing.
The concern is also over the partial use of statistics, promoted as part of this managed discourse rather than as grist for genuine debate.
What actions can we undertake to manage the new policy-making paradigm for the common good?
First, we must return to policy-making properly based upon valid data; insist that that data is effectively open source, available un-packaged by opinion to those who wish to participate in the debate; and ensure that we are informed by those voices that are usually unheard.
The second task for all of us is to prevent the Leveson report, and the action which should follow from it, being undermined by the very processes which it has exposed.
Third, we need to be alert to the growing trend to let go the impartiality requirements on broadcasters.
And last, we need to help the public as a whole to understand social media, to appreciate its strengths and weaknesses; to know what represents a genuine view ‘trending’, and what has been artificially set up to appear as such; to realise that there are those around who regularly offer to sell us another hundred or thousand followers. The social media could be about a genuine upwelling of public opinion, but they are open to manipulation as never before.
The transcript and downloadable versions of all of the lectures are available from the Gresham College website: