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Off the merry-go-round: a long-term cabinet for a long-term government


2 Mar 2020

EIF chief executive Dr Jo Casebourne reflects on the latest round of cabinet changes, and asks whether the conditions might now be in place for ministers to take a longer-term view of the complex challenges facing children and families.

Last month’s cabinet reshuffle brought an end to what has sometimes felt like a never-ending cycle of political upheaval. Over recent years, multiple general elections, the unfamiliar challenges of governing in coalition, changes in Conservative party leadership and the internal politics of a government operating on a slim or non-existent majority have all combined to produce a long series of changes in key cabinet posts, and government ministers who, as some have pointed out, have turned over even more frequently than football managers. Predictably, insecurity of tenure incentivises ministers to focus on the here-and-now, at the cost of long-range strategy and planning. And changes in leadership can all too easily lead to ‘shiny new thing’ syndrome, where new ministers seek out novel solutions promising quick returns.

But now, with the reshuffle in the rearview mirror and the budget looming, do we at last have a cabinet in a position to plan and act over a longer timeframe, and make serious decisions to tackle difficult, long-term challenges as a result?

As the Institute for Government has pointed out, ministers need to be in post for long enough to learn about the problems they are addressing and to see through real changes. And the effects of impermanence are exacerbated when we consider the huge and complicated challenges facing children, young people and families. Without a single, leading department or minister, responsibility for children’s policy is fragmented across Whitehall. Since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, we’ve seen five secretaries of state for education, four home secretaries, three in health, and a whopping seven in work and pensions – including six since March 2016. It was a similar story in the Labour years that preceded 2010. Every time a portfolio changes hands, there is unavoidably a period of learning and acclimatisation, as new ministers get to grips with the issues and challenges of a new role. Relationships need to be reforged, and new principles and priorities emerge.

As understandable as it all may be, this compounding complexity and uncertainty can only work to undermine any attempt to produce policy and government leadership on the kind of long timeframe that some of our deepest social issues require.

Short-termism in policymaking is a dangerous thing. It can leave us stuck in a cycle of reinventing the wheel every couple of years, backing new ideas and initiatives for a short period and then dropping them for the next new and shiny thing. There’s a tendency to fail to learn whether these new ideas have actually worked or not – there may be too little time to test, empirically, whether new policies and initiatives are actually improving lives, or for the impact of those policies to even show through. This lack of evaluation hamstrings future policymaking – governments have funded too many innovation programmes without testing what works, and so we’re left no further forward in terms of knowing what to commit to, invest in or scale up.

Short-term, single-issue funding pots make life difficult at lower levels of government as well: councils spend too much time in endless bidding rounds for small amounts of money, when much-needed core services are under-funded – and any newly funded services may themselves be withdrawn a year or two down the line, when the cycle starts again.

In other areas, where there is clear departmental responsibility for issues, the government has been able to put in place 25-year plans – such as on housing or the environment. We need to see the same level of ambition, coordination and leadership brought to children’s policy. The many overlapping and interconnected factors that can have a negative impact on a child’s development and wellbeing – think of poverty, health and social inequalities, poor mental health or declining social mobility – have one thing in common: they elude simple solutions. When it comes to tackling complex social problems, the reality is that short-term policymaking and time-limited investment is unlikely to make a dent. If we are serious about improving outcomes for vulnerable children, then government needs to recognise that supporting children and families with complex needs requires a resource-intensive, long-term response. There is a real opportunity in the budget and the upcoming spending review to do just that.

About the author

Dr Jo Casebourne

Jo is CEO at What Works for Early Intervention and Children's Social Care.