Sunday, 12 August 2012

A spunky Welsh Public Policy Institute

Hat tip to A Change of Personnel.

The First Minister launched his government's proposed Public Policy Institute earlier this week. He's initiated a "pre-tendering process" to encourage the "brightest minds" to apply – from academia, presumably parts of the public sector, existing think-tanks and private sector too.

I was pleased when Carwyn Jones first announced a "new deal" with the civil service, of which this forms a part, as it was in the fallout from that Green Investment Bank bid. Anything that would've given the civil service a boost at the time would've been welcomed by me personally with open arms. I thought, "At last! Someone's finally got it!"

What I envisioned, was a Public Policy Institute that would:
  • Be a significant non-partisan body. Most "Public Policy Institutes" are completely/mostly independent (even if they are sometimes partisan) – for example, the Institute for Public Policy Research, Institute of Economic Affairs and Institute for Fiscal Studies.
  • Focus its attentions on debating public policy decisions in Wales (or UK/EU policies affecting Wales) and help come up with creative new ones.
  • Have enough clout (academic/reputation) to give the Welsh Government a clip around the ear every now and again.
  • Be the first step in the creation of some sort of "Civil Service Academy"

We need all that if we're ever going to hold Welsh Governments (of all colours) to account effectively, and see a significant shift in public service performance. That would qualify, from a political anorak perspective, as an "exciting development."

Then you look at the detail in this pre-tender.

What the Institute of Public Policy will be expected to do:
  • Respond rapidly to the needs of the Welsh Government, including providing short turn-around advice to Ministers, but not commission any research of its own.
  • Support the cabinet in highlighting "cross-cutting issues" (screw-ups?)
  • Help interpret research for Ministers, and draw lines to dots for them ("make connections between insights and evidence") as well as double check Welsh Government research, looking for gaps.
  • Maximise impact with "less emphasis on written reports", and more on "communicating" and "getting the right people together." (Some sort of government PA/gofer?)
  • Developing cross-discipline delivery (for example, social justice and health)
  • Build partnerships with international think-tanks and universities.
  • Working through a "network of authoritative and independent individuals, contributing to the work of the Welsh Government's Knowledge and Analytical Service and (the) Departments' research commissioning, at Ministers request."

All of this is subject to "refinement at the pre-tender stage", so it's not set it stone. It doesn't deserve to be written off before it's even come into being.

I think the role of this body can be simplified even further.

Back in school, there was probably a kid/kids whom lazier classmates used to go to get answers from during difficult lessons? That's what (it looks like) this proposed Institute of Public Policy is going to be – someone to help the Welsh Government and civil service with their homework. Maybe that's not an entirely bad thing thinking about it.

Although this has all the hallmarks of a think-tank (it was described as such when initially launched back in February), it can't "commission any research of its own". It's a think-tank that can't think.

So it's just a "tank" then. Tommy tank.

Then you look at selection criteria : Full grasp of key issues facing Wales, understand practical challenges of policy implementation, build effective relationships with Ministers, civil servants academics....

I'm willing to bet Prof. Brian Morgan's name just popped into your head. Victoria Winckler? Perhaps a former Welsh Government Minister like Andrew Davies? That's not to say they haven't made considerable contributions, but I wouldn't at all be surprised if it's a familiar face(s) coming, probably bringing ideas with them that will be all too familiar as well.

That's not a public policy institute really, but a panel of experts outsourced from the civil service. It also seems to be obliged to respond to requests from Ministers - that's more "footsie under the table" than "arms length from government".

There are crumbs of comfort . Shortlisted candidates will be expected to "focus on delivery." You can't accuse the First Minister of not meaning business there. He deserves credit for trying at least. Developing greater "cross-discipline delivery" and "links with international think-tanks and universities" is also pretty sensible.

The new institute will be transparent too, with its work "published as a matter of routine" – good. But then you notice it says, "unless there are compelling arguments against" (what I presume means "compelling arguments against publishing analyses produced by the institute").

Hmm....if the analysis would be too inconvenient? Who would decide what does or doesn't get released?

The First Minister has been commendably prudent. The contract is only for three years, and its envisaged up to a maximum of £450,000 will be spent on it per annum.

Alas, it'll inevitably disappear in amongst all those initiatives and departments that, perceivably, only exist as lines on the Assembly's annual budget spreadsheets.

There's not much to see here - unfortunately.


  1. It will be jobs for redundant Labour politicians, mind you there aren't that many of them in Wales. Perhaps they'll have to start importing failed Labour politicians from Scotland; plenty up there.

  2. Don't forget Winckler's mate at the Bevan Foundation, Daran Hill and Positif Politics. Me I think I will stick by Melding's new think tank at least there's a chance that might come up with original thought not regurgigate some failed Labour policy.

  3. I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing getting someone from the "inside" (if thats what the WG decide to do). The job spec sounds perfect for somebody like that, but "Public Policy Institute" it ain't. The fact the contract is only for three years is a little odd, but understandable. Is this geared to one particularly "controversial" public policy issue that's going to be in the Welsh news quite a lot over the next few years?

    As for Gorwel, it's a good development, but what's to stop them regurgitating failed Conservative & New Labour policies?

  4. It will be interesting to see if anyone challenges or questions Carwyn Jones about this (and other developments over the summer) when the Assembly gets back from break. That might give us a better idea as to the real intentions behind this new body.

  5. ACOP - Chance would be a fine thing!

  6. "Me I think I will stick by Melding's new think tank at least there's a chance that might come up with original thought not regurgigate some failed Labour policy."

    Why? It's a centre-right think tank and therefore is not coming from a good policy perspective in the first place.