Policy delivery – the challenge that government can no longer ignore

By on 27/05/2024 | Updated on 23/05/2024
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‘Are government and other leaders over-focusing on operational performance at the expense of building engagement and delivering on policy?’ asks Andrew Kakabadse, professor of governance and leadership at Henley Business School

The Labour Party under former Prime Minister Tony Blair was an exemplar of how policy delivery challenges facing communities and organisations were often misunderstood.

This lack of awareness led to the demise of several specific entities that were strongly contributing to the public good, but also needed operational improvement.

With less future scanning being conducted by government and other leadership figures, stakeholder relations and reputation concerns are progressively being ignored.

Over time, accountability becomes increasingly focused on operational task performance and the meeting of compliance requirements, rather than the important concept of building engagement within government and with communities.

Another example of this was the abandonment of the Top Management Programme (TMP), an initiative first started in 1986, which brought top civil servants and ministers, the private sector and public service leaders together to enhance engagement and alignment to generate improved national wealth and UK success on the international stage.

Failures in context

At the time the TMP was more in demand than the Harvard Strategy Programme and, to this day, certain members of its cohort still meet, share and examine challenging concerns, despite the demise of the programme’s official national problem-solving function over a myopic focus on operational improvement.

Similarly, the UK Civil Service College was shut because of a supposed lack of attention on operational skills, its contribution to shaping national and international mindsets seemingly set aside.

Furthermore, Bramshill Police College was closed, despite its focal role in global thinking on police and societal matters. The College attracted top officers from around the world, including members of the FBI and CIA.

The short-termist perspective of the Labour Party has been continued by the Conservatives, with both groups showcasing a lack of appreciation over how to build entity cultures that enable alignment across multiple interests.

This failure to appreciate the context in which an effective police force can be delivered, beyond accountability for operational outcomes, demonstrates a lack of understanding over how significant institutions can change a society according to particular values and principles.

The zealous pursuit of accountability over-relies on management and disrespects leadership.

Read more by Andrew Kakabadse: How to ensure effective decision-making in the civil service

Is government fit?

The ‘Is Government Fit for Purpose?’ 2018 analysis of the UK government in its entirety found that ministers and senior civil servants considered that 80% of policies are deemed failures because of the ignorance of, or lack of respect for, the ‘fracturing’ that occurs in the policy delivery. Many such policies were originally considered sound.

Our ongoing Kakabadse research conducted into large private and public sector entities repeatedly turns up this 80% figure as it reveals how otherwise well-thought-out policies and strategies continually fracture due to inattention or incompetence.

Clearly, the greatest challenge to policy is in its delivery, not its creation.

Policy delivery is a critical challenge for leadership and management. Strategic focus or refocus requirements are leadership issues, which need addressing in conjunction with management-led operational and efficiency matters.

Here follow five key considerations from our findings on enhancing policy delivery:

1. Organisation size

Any entity with more than 500 people is prone to systems weaknesses. Administrative disciplines so easily erode into bureaucracy, which then becomes the driver of operational and strategic inflexibility, as well as an unwillingness, inability or lack of awareness to respond to external demands or events.

The main reason for this is trying to justify appropriate responses to market developments or communities that cut across organisational boundaries and require the implementation of procedures that satisfactorily respond to external demand but upset internal configurations.

Organisational and financial disciplines, and performance review measurement processes are meant to enable performance efficiency and act as the ‘glue’ between department units and the wider entity.

However, the need to improve processes and respond to opportunities or external developments is often ignored or rejected. In such an instance it doesn’t take long for resentment to build up with external audiences, which then undermines the entity’s reputation and can even lead to its demise.

2. A silo mindset

A gathering of specialists who focus on quality improvement can evolve into a distinct community, which then all too easily slips into a silo mindset.

This is because their main purpose shifts towards protecting the community, giving less time and attention to deliberation, and more to the procedural parameters of their unit or department.

In other words, markets and communities become viewed according to ways of thinking and dynamics shaped by protocol arrangements. Silo mindsets lend themselves to extensive resistance to change.

When trying to counter and change a silo mindset, quality is often compromised as resistance to change arises.

At the same time, when internal leaders recognise the strategic value of pursuing change, they should accept a short-term compromise on standards to avoid deep resistance developing towards the issues at hand, before ultimately adopting new ways of working.

3. Interfacing

When pursuing a programme of change, attention must focus on key leaders who hold sensitive interface positions within the structure of an entity.

An interface is the point where two or more organisational structural arrangements meet and possibly induce tension.

Collaboration becomes necessary as a way of resolving emerging misalignments, issue-by-issue.

This means the maturity, personal resilience and collaborative qualities of those holding significant interface roles is the difference between policy being effectively delivered, or policy becoming continually frustrated.

The emergent mindset of those holding interface roles is of far greater importance than the quality of organisational design.

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4. Fracture Points

When continued disruption of policy delivery becomes habitual, the fractures that occur in the structure are highly evident.

It is common practice for centralised leadership to ignore demands for improvement from its general management.

The reality of policy being delivered on the ground is a message headquarters often doesn’t wish to hear – ‘the strategy from headquarters may be fine, but communities and markets have little impact’.

There is a crucial requirement to allow the policy or strategy to be adapted to local circumstances. When this fails to take place, leadership tends to dig in their heels.

The responsibility for giving attention to these fracture points is a governance issue. Those who hold a governance or oversight role may be too far removed from experiencing the reality of the damage done at each fracture point.

Those who take their oversight responsibilities seriously should visit the points where fracturing occurs and gather the necessary data to better inform themselves about fracture point effects. The next task is to share these insights back up the chain of decision-making.

5. Future scanning

Continued inattention to the weaknesses of large systems induces an inward-looking perspective, which in turn becomes the cultural norm.

Besides not responding to external demands, an additional outcome is declining investment in foresight studies.

While taking a harder line with external demands or complaints may reduce the ferocity of external demands in the short-term, reviewing this issue more carefully allows for a better internal assessment of effectiveness

In reality, compliance is used at the expense of stewardship as the organisation becomes out of touch, but doesn’t know, or wish to know it. As a result, engagement and trust with external stakeholders is progressively damaged.

Context is crucial

Enhanced policy delivery effectiveness demands an enlightened leadership that will respect how to engage audiences effectively, despite in-built misalignments that are inherent in policy delivery.

Decision-making should be conducted on a contextual basis where each policy creation and delivery action is unique. It is the quality of leadership and management that counts most, and which must work through and appreciate every policy delivery complexity to make a real difference.

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About Andrew Kakabadse

Andrew Kakabadse is professor of governance and leadership at Henley Business School

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