Doing something for nothing earns top marks at the school for civil servants

Inside Whitehall: Sometimes it may be better for Whitehall to share ideas rather than impose solutions – and on occasions, the best policy may be no policy at all.

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Indy Politics

The challenge for the group of young “fast track” civil servants was deceptively simple: design a strategy for the local council to improve the health and lives of pensioners living in Harrow.

Their plans had to show measurable improvements, have minimal upfront costs and – even in the short term – save the council money.

The rub: they had less than four days to do it and at the end they would be interrogated and judged by their ultimate boss, Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary.

That, in essence, was the challenge I witnessed the other day when I was invited to “Policy School” – a new type of training for civil servants devised by the Cabinet Office’s behavioural insights team.

Drawn up to combat criticism that most civil service training tends to be lecture-driven, with scant regard for real life, the idea behind Policy School is to give top-tier civil servants a more practical experience.

As part of it they not only had to come up with a policy – but also meet the people it would affect and those who would deliver it. The presence of Sir Jeremy on the final blisteringly hot Friday to pass judgement on their ideas made sure that they took it seriously.

The course had begun with Sir Jeremy telling them what was expected: while the policy they were devising was local, it represented one of the key challenges for all government initiatives in the age of austerity – the conundrum of trying to do more with less.

Sir Jeremy thinks this is possible. He described a “sweet spot” where policy can be devised using new ideas like payment by results, using behavioural economics (“nudge”) to test what works and what doesn’t – and encouraging greater use of the voluntary sector to deliver results.

So how did the five teams of four stack up? One came up with a plan to divert the money which Harrow spends providing free swimming lessons for the over-65s to give all pensioners in the borough £100 of vouchers to choose from a range of activities such as walking, painting or exercise classes.

But when they presented their ideas, under pretty tough (almost Apprentice-style) questioning from Sir Jeremy and two other senior civil servants, it soon became apparent that their sums did not add up. There are 40,000 pensioners in Harrow, it was pointed out, leaving the council facing a £4m bill for the scheme. No sweet spot there.

Another group wanted to concentrate on supporting elderly carers and improving their health by offering them weekend breaks, priority with their local GP and other benefits. But again, under questioning, they admitted that it would be hard to judge the “cashable savings”. Such savings, Sir Jeremy told them, would need to be far clearer before the plan went to ministers.

A third group had a plan to use Harrow’s parks to offer pensioners Tai Chi lessons and get them involved in gardening and maintaining green spaces. This caught the judges’ imagination. But, from the media perspective at least, it looked a little risky. You could almost see the headline: “Council tells pensioners: clean up our parks”.

The winning policy was a simple one: get GPs to identify lonely pensioners (loneliness is recognised as a key trigger of poor health) and put them in touch with each other at formal and informal events.

The team had identified that the council already had volunteer “neighbourhood champions” who could help run the scheme and identified clear savings it could bring. One elderly lady had called out an ambulance on 130 occasions when there was nothing really wrong with her, just because she wanted someone to talk to. They even had a catchy name: “Prescribing Friendship.”

Despite scepticism from Sir Jeremy that GPs could be persuaded to do anything without being paid more for it, the idea was the winner. You could see how it could work on the ground; it used existing structures and people to make it happen and could make a real difference to people’s quality of life – and ultimately their health.

But more broadly (and to a relative outsider) what was interesting about seeing Policy School first hand was to observe just how tricky making policy in austerity Britain is. Ministers want to be seen to be “doing something” – but don’t have the luxury of throwing money at a problem.

Many of the new methods being taught – such as paying companies, charities and voluntary groups only for the results they achieve – are, at best, untested and sometimes disastrous.

Most importantly of all, not all good ideas can be scaled up to work well everywhere. Very often they are successful because of the motivation of the people who make them happen – and founder when run by others. Take “Prescribing Loneliness” – it can only be as good as the individual doctors’ surgeries doing the “prescribing”.

So another lesson to be taught in Policy School might be this: sometimes it may be better for Whitehall to share ideas rather than impose solutions – and on occasions, the best policy may be no policy at all.

Department of Work simply isn’t working

Two announcements slipped out by the Government on Monday (as Kate headed to hospital) provide more evidence of what insiders have been saying privately for some time: the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) is in a mess.

Firstly they seem to have lost control of the “fitness to work” test programme carried out by the controversial private contractor Atos. Quite how no one in DWP was aware that the company was botching a staggering 41 per cent of its assessments is extraordinary. 

Not only that, but close reading of the figures on the Youth Contract Scheme (which pays companies to employ young people who have been out of work for six months or more) shows that of the 7,810 people who started on this scheme only 63 per cent found long-term jobs. But the employers still got paid.

Some ministers claim privately that Iain Duncan Smith is not to blame and that it is his dysfunctional department that is at fault. But whether it is the policy, or the implementation of the policy that’s going wrong, DWP clearly needs help.

Every picture tells a story, minister

One of the more pleasurable duties that every new minister coming into government has is deciding which works of art he or she wants to “borrow” from the Government Art Collection to hang in their new office.

But on a recent visit to see a minister, I discovered the collection provides another service as well. Unlike the Culture minister Ed Vaizey (who I am sure is fully au fait with the works of landscape painter John Hubbard) my minister was not so assured.

After I asked about the provenance of a particular piece adorning his wall, the minister disarmingly pulled out from his desk a crib sheet on all the  art in his room which  was provided, along with the art, by the collection. “Oh I don’t know – have a look at that,” he said.

I wonder if all his colleagues are that honest.