England & Wales, Global, Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance, Economy and regeneration

Are dead men dominating policy making?


James Mitchell, Professor of Public Policy at Edinburgh University, writes on the difficulties of creating effective policy for current times in the face of historical policies and spending commitments, where the unpopularity of reversing decisions creates inertia in policy making.

One of the great challenges facing policy makers today was first identified by Thomas Jefferson, the philosophical third President of the USA. What may be a preferred policy in one generation will be inherited by and prove difficult to change for future generations.  This is particularly true with respect to budgetary politics and policy. Interests, either vested or single-topic, may create policies. But policies also create more vested interests, and policy positions to be taken and defended. Once spending commitments are made in one generation, they create beneficiaries that can and will be mobilised for their retention in the future.  Diffuse interests can become organised when under threat, for example, try removing Scotland’s generous free tuition for university students and you will have a powerful, vocal predominantly middle-class revolt on your hands.

Jefferson is seen as the father of inter-generational justice. For Jefferson, dead men should not rule the living. Jefferson argued that ‘one generation is to another as one independent nation to another’. His use of ‘men’ unwittingly highlights his point.

Jefferson’s point has been adopted by parts of the environmentalist movement who note that the impacts of past policies and behaviours are creating a bleak future for current and future generations. However, his comments and thinking also resonate in the wider world of public policy making. Most institutions and policies that exist today have their origins in much earlier times. Moreover, some policies may have been further developed over the years and amended but rarely reversed or stopped. Indeed disinvestment or removing service provision is difficult, as anyone who has tried to close a school can testify.

This inbuilt inertia creates an inherent bias in favour of the status quo that limits autonomy, especially in times of constrained resources. A fiscal pincer movement of many past decisions is squeezing out new policy initiatives. On the one side, spending commitments made in ‘years of plenty’ with little thought to the likelihood of consequences of ‘years of famine’ eat up resources. In that first decade of devolution in Scotland, a generous commitment was made to supporting personal care for the elderly with insufficient appreciation of how open-ended and costly this commitment would become with a growing elderly population. It was a policy that could be defended in its own right and in its time as so many can. Other commitments, including universal free prescriptions, proved popular which, again, have merit but come at the cost of funding new policy.

Decision makers in the UK were at times only too willing to suspend their critical faculties and to believe that ‘boom and bust had ended’ at the turn of the millennium. Spending commitments were made in the years of phenomenal public spending growth. In the seven years to March 2006, UK public spending reached unknown levels outside wartime. But it has been downhill since the fiscal crisis caused by the ‘Great Recession’ of 2007/08. Less money, but with the same inherited spending commitments and rising public expectations.

The other arm of the fiscal pincer movement is tax. Governments are reluctant to increase taxes for the obvious reason that this is very unpopular. Caught between the unpopularity of both tax increases and spending cuts leads governments into a particular style of politics.  Reluctant to make unpopular and difficult decisions, all spheres of government devolve penury, never to be confused with devolving power, so far as they can and engage in blame games. Forcing others to make the difficult decisions is central to the politics of austerity. Local government knows this only too well.

Even had the good years extended into the future, and boom and bust had indeed been defeated, there would still be a need to confront dead men’s policies. Past boldness deserves high praise but should never go unchallenged as circumstances change. Even the best policies require revisiting if they are to avoid becoming stale and institutional sclerosis sets in. Some institutions are protected with almost religious fervour, though few have acquired the secular-religious status of the National Health Service.

To be caught in this pincer movement would be bad enough, but austerity brings additional demands on many services. Add in other unrelated and growing pressures from demographic change, welfare reforms and the need to address climate change and we see a perfect storm brewing. Averting a storm is not always possible, but preparing for one is essential. It is tempting to hope that the storm will change course or fizzle out.

There are no easy answers. But unless the storm fizzles out or significant additional resources are found then the only alternative will be to question some of those dead men’s policies. That will be uncomfortable and will be opposed strenuously. The greatest worry is that those which are likely to be protected are more likely to be those with have the loudest voices. It will take strong leaders to confront these loud voices. It will also be one of the most important tests of leadership.

Related briefings


3 thoughts on “Are dead men dominating policy making?

  1. Good article. Many of us (certainly in the data world) are already wasting days/ weeks of our lives trying to make up for poor historical policymaking. I’m not sure if it was just ignorance (about the importance of good data to monitor and assess policy) or policymaking on the cheap/ sly, but the lack of coherent thought and standards/ guidance about data linked to policy is causing all sorts of issues. We urgently need policy to catch up with the 21st century and link in good data requirements. It seems to be consistently overlooked and is preventing progressive decision making and improvements across our society.

  2. Your choice of free personal care is an interesting one. Only time will tell whether it will be seen as a generous commitment which attracted insufficient appreciation of its long term implications or whether they grasped the nettle to tackle the challenge from the positive development of an ageing population with people living longer with disability – a nettle that remains firmly rooted and untreated in England with significant impact on people’s dignity and well-being, as anyone with a family member in such a situation can testify.

    1. Which is not to say it is in any way perfect situation in Scotland and in need of significant policy response…but England has been anything but generous and can at least learn from Scotland’s bolder approach. Liked the article!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *