On Slow Policy

It was Paul Kingsnorth (poet, scythe-mower, recovering “green”) and Pope Francis 1 (pontif, misogynist, Argentinian) who between them set this particular hare running. Paul (you might know him as the co-founder of Dark Mountain) was noting on twitter with evident glee the frustration of the massed press in St Peter’s Square, being offered nothing to report on but the occasional puff of coloured smoke.

A bored and restless press was kept waiting by a seriously “closed” process, and responded with irreverence and irritability. For once, the news wasn’t moving to the tempo they were used to.

But the news didn’t always move at that speed.

Here’s the first paragraph of a Time magazine article on the papal coronation in October 1978 (there’s more behind a paywall). This article represents the entire coverage of Time concerning the conclave. It is thoughtful, resonant, conveying more of a sense of the occasion than this entire Daily Mail article on the 2005 conclave, which though short and poorly written, at least captures the main points in a comprehensible manner.

Compare the Metro’s “live blog” from the Vatican City. Or any one of the millions of other articles from the day, from bloggers, journalists, analysts and columists – from canon law experts and militant atheists. Even from an advocate for livetweeting from within the conclave.

I’m not sure that this is the fault of the news industry, or the fault of our constant access to “new media”. These are the things that get blamed for a lack of detailed comprehension, for a disengagement with the news and for a focus on trivialities rather than that great cliché, the “real issues that hard-working families are concerned with”.

Me – I blame policy making.

A while ago former government wonk Damien McBride wrote a lovely eye-opener of a blog post about “The Grid“. This was the UK government’s media management toolkit from 1997-2010.

“The ‘grid system’ initiated by New Labour – transferred from their 1997 election campaign – is commonly considered to be a news management tool, with a series of announcements plotted to dominate each day’s coverage and provide occasional cover to bury bad news”

The key word is “dominate” – the idea was to super-saturate the news ecosystem with controlled news items. The idea of “burying bad news” was taken to extremes by another government advisor of the day, Jo Moore, who suggested that the 11th September 2011 was a good time to release stories that were unlikely to offer the government flattering coverage.  This scandal led to perhaps the greatest modern political quote, which I repeat with unbridled delight, from Permanent Secretary Sir Richard Mottram:

We’re all fucked. I’m fucked. You’re fucked. The whole department is fucked. It’s the biggest cock-up ever. We’re all completely fucked.”

This is not the language of someone making good public policy. This is the language of panic.

To dominate a media that is skilled in identifying and disseminating key news angles government press officers attempt to overfeed journalists. The thinking appears to be that if you continually keep them reacting to events instantly, there will be no time for any analysis of the implications of the announcements in question – either taken singularly or culminatively.

Jeremy Porter, the editor of the “journalistics” blog, estimated in 2009 that around 4,000 press releases – from government, industry and pressure groups – were sent out every single day.

I’ve worked in policy for most of my working life, so I see the other end as well – desperate, quick, attention-grabbing initiatives that make little or no sense given the wider swathes of policy history in a particular area.

Neither policy making nor policy analysis has any sense of history, despite the sterling work of blogs like Public Policy and the Past, and initiatives like the KCL/London “History & Policy” pages. In a way the system is such that there is deliberately no time for this indulgence.

And the increasingly hysterical attitudes of lobbyists and pressure groups, setting arbitrary targets before some great cataclysm occurs – campaigning for immediate action on some newspaper-fed flash fire of public concern – is little help to this. Knee-jerk policy is not a victory for a campaign… it is bad policy that unravels over the following weeks and months.

Slow policy would start with a fallow period – a fast – by both sides. An end to all policy announcements. For at least 12 months. This time would be used to commission and conduct, in public, proper research on the problems people face.

From policy makers, this would require a retreat from their fear of deep public analysis and their need to make headlines. And from commentators, a retreat from the need to reduce every policy decision to an act of political warfare. And from all of us, from the idea that everything requires immediate action.

Watching the smoke might be the best thing that every happened to public policy.

 [postscript: I’ve just been worrying that it is nearly a week since the conclave, and that I’m too late with this post… none of us are immune]

 

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