Doing something for nothing earns top marks at the school for civil servants - UK Politics - UK - The Independent

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.

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.

News
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Sport
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Travel
travel
News
The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
SCIENCE
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition attracted 562,000 visitors to the Tate Modern from April to September
art
Life and Style
Models walk the runway at the Tom Ford show during London Fashion Week Spring Summer 2015
fashionLondon Fashion Week 2014
News
Kenny G
news
News
peopleThe black actress has claimed police mistook her for a prostitute when she kissed her white husband
Life and Style
techIndian model comes with cricket scores baked in
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Energy Markets Analyst

£400000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Energy Markets An...

Junior Web Analyst – West Sussex – Up to £35k DOE

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Nursery Manager

£22000 - £23000 per annum: Randstad Education Bristol: We are currently recrui...

Web Analyst – Permanent – Up to £40k - London

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week