There was a fascinating contrast on BBC Radio 4 a few days ago.

Think tank The Institute for Government had published a survey of members of the Political Studies Association.  Mea culpa I hadn’t heard of the PSA.  They say their membership includes “practitioners [and] policy makers” but the game is given away by their web address – psa.ac.uk.  They’re academic political scientists.

Nothing wrong with that and I make no criticism of them.

The fascinating bit was hearing two ex-politicians discuss the survey – Andrew Adonis (ex-Labour minister and now i/c of said Institute for Government) and Michael Portillo (ex-Conservative minister, once-upon-a-time nemesis of the left, now cuddly media figure).

Asked what made a successful policy, the political scientists’ top answers were

  • social impact
  • successful implementation
  • economic impact
  • duration of impact, and
  • realisation of political principles

and their most successful Westminster policy interventions since 1980 were

  • the minimum wage
  • devolution
  • privatisation, and
  • the Northern Ireland peace process.

(Incidentally, of the 800+ members of the PSA surveyed only 150 bothered to reply, a response rate of less than 19% – pretty poor for academics who often rely on surveys of others for their own research)

In the much less structured rough and tumble of a short radio interview Portillo and Adonis seemed to come to a perhaps surprising consensus on the subject.

They endorsed the political scientists’ list of successful policies although Portillo, understandably from his point of view, added council house sales (he also had the sense to acknowledge the poll tax as an unsuccessful policy doomed to failure).

Where they parted from the political scientists was their politicians’ view of what made a successful policy.  Between them they said it was

  • determined political leadership (often across political parties)
  • careful preparation
  • learning from previous mistakes
  • starting small and building up
  • ease of achievement (minimum wage easy, education reform hard)
  • working with the grain of human nature
  • focus – don’t do more than you are capable of doing

and above all (the “above all” is my take)

  • recognising an idea whose time has come.

Portillo offered the additional insight that a government’s quality of decision making declines over time, or as national-treasure interviewer Jim Naughtie paraphrased it – “They become clapped out” (that incidentally being a profound truth politicians in government are unable to articulate in public).

What a great list and what a different insight from the academics.

I think I’m with the ex-politicians, or at least these two, on this one.

Aspiring and serving governments should have the Adonis-Portillo list to hand as a litmus test for all their proposals.

How would our still-new UK government’s policies match up against that litmus test?

Just as intriguing for someone (me) who has worked for many years in and with councils, what are the ideas whose time has come in local government?  And what would people’s list be of past local government ideas whose time came?

Historical note.  The origin of the phrase an idea whose time has come seems to rest with French novelist Victor Hugo who actually wrote “On résiste à l’invasion des armées; on ne résiste pas à l’invasion des idées”.    There are numerous English translations and paraphrases and an idea whose time has come produces 9.7 million Google hits.

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