Back of the envelope policy-making

Back of the envelope

This post was originally going to be about the pros and cons of two recent UK government policy announcements. The first proposes to force people to wait a week after losing their jobs before claiming JSA (Jobseeker’s Allowance), and the second to get new immigrants to pay a £1000 levy on entering the country, in order to defray the cost of their potential use of the NHS.

There’s plenty to say about this – very little of it complementary. For example, much could be made of George Osborne’s laughably weak argument for the JSA delay. “Those first seven days should be spent looking for a job and not looking to sign on”, he says confidently, as if the two activities were completely mutually exclusive. If only there were some sort of place where unemployed people could receive financial support, and get help looking for jobs at the same time. Some kind of ‘Job Centre’ perhaps?

But then a thought struck me. By discussing these policies on their merits, I was treating them as if they were a sincere attempt to legislate. I was implicitly assuming that the politicians involved were seriously trying to solve a problem – albeit in a way I didn’t agree with. Basically I was thinking like The West Wing instead of The Thick of It (and my quest to single-handedly dumb down this blog continues…). If you’ve not seen one, or either of these shows, they both deal with politics but have fundamentally different outlooks. In The West Wing, the political operators are the best and the brightest, trying their damnedest to follow their moral compass in a difficult world. In the world of The West Wing, if the bad-guy Republicans want to, say, eliminate inheritance tax, it’s because they have a principled (if wrong-headed) objection to the government taking away money people should be able to leave to their kids.

Perhaps The Thick of It’s keenest political insight is to thoroughly skewer this way of thinking about politics. It effectively shows that a lot of government policy results, not from a thoughtful attempt to solve any particular problem, but instead from a group of people stuck in a conference room for an hour trying to think of a way of getting a good headline. Put that way, this might sound less like insight and more like stating the blindingly obvious – but that cynicism doesn’t fit well with way people really behave. If you ask people who are the least trustworthy groups in society, politicians and journalists will be right up there with used car salesmen; but how long do you have to argue with someone before they say “But it said in the papers that…”. People want to feel like they’re as worldly and cynical as The Thick of It, but I think the model of politics they actually carry around in their heads is a lot closer to The West Wing.

You can see this in the response to the two policies that were going to be the focus of this post. These are tiny policies which address non-problems, and coincidentally target, with laser-like precision, two groups the public hate – immigrants and people on benefits. These are prime suspects for legislation-as-PR-exercise. And yet people’s first reaction (myself included) was not to call them out as such, but to address them seriously, on their merits as policy.

So what’s the problem with this? Government’s (not just this one) are always going to want to curry favour, and this is a tool they’ve always used.  The problem is that using legislation as a way of generating good headlines is like using a nuclear weapon to blow up a wasp nest. Sure it’ll probably work, but you can do a lot of collateral damage in the process. Legislation is law. You shouldn’t just wave it about willy-nilly – it should be used carefully and thoughtfully to solve actual problems (and always with a mind to potential unintended consequences).  

So the next time the government announces some back-of-the-envelope, we’ll-think-of-something-on-the-way-to-the-press-conference policy, instead of “Government proposes criminals should pay back benefits”, I want to see headlines saying “Government carelessly uses legislation for publicity”.

About Robert de Vries

I'm an Early Career Research Fellow in the Sociology department at the University of Oxford. I'm mainly interested in how people are affected by concerns about their social status; how it colours the way they think, feel, and behave. I try and contribute here regularly, but my addiction to writing excessively long posts keeps getting in the way.
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2 Responses to Back of the envelope policy-making

  1. I couldn’t agree more. As for the week-long waiting time – how about not letting me apply for a week so that I “concentrate” on looking for a job but then backdating the benefit? A simple solution that rubbishes IDS’s claim even further. However, I am sure they will try to extend the waiting time to a month before they are done destroying the country. There is an outright war on benefit claimants with little regard paid to long- or even midterm consequences. There is no-one left to vote for either. Labour said they will not reverse any welfare-related acts if they come to power.

  2. jaynel62 says:

    This is a simply brilliant analogy of Policy Making – Thank You

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