Is nudging enough?

Rene Kinzett, one of my fellow contributors over at Dale & Co, posted Nudging or Nannying last weekend. The argument was perhaps a little cryptic, but the point was that relying on the subtlety of trying to “nudge” behaviour in the right direction is not an adequate policy response to certain types of problem. His example of treating rickets among young women who for cultural reasons do not have enough exposure to sunlight is an interesting one. He referred to minimum alcohol pricing, a policy being introduced in Scotland, and banning smoking in cars carrying children, a policy being introduced in Wales, as more conventional regulatory policy that will help those on the edges of society, when nudges are judged inadequate.

A couple of comments took Kinzett to task for this argument. One made the point that nudge theory is being preferred for developing policy at the moment because it has been shown to be more effective than traditional regulatory approaches. It was also arguing that no one is suggesting that nudge can be used in isolation and should be combined with other mechanisms to deliver better social outcomes.

It seems to me that these comments miss the mark in at least a couple of ways. Read more of this post

Policy and evidence – the homelessness episode part II

Last weekend the Observer ran with the story on welfare reform and homelessness. A senior civil servant at CLG had written to the Prime Minister warning that the Government’s proposed welfare reforms could result in – among other negative consequences – 40,000 additional homeless households (as I discussed here). This raised questions about a Government willing to ignore its own evidence and the accuracy or otherwise of Ministerial statements to Parliament. Subsequently Grant Shapps has dismissed the 40,000 figure because it was based upon “out of date” information and didn’t relate to current government policy. He also announced a £20m fund for integrating homelessness prevention services, rolling out a model that has worked in London to the rest of the country.

A passage in yesterday’s blog by the Guardian HousingNetwork Editor caught my eye: Read more of this post

Dispatching rogue landlords

Tonight’s C4 Dispatches programme provided some very clear evidence regarding poor standards of accommodation and management in the private rented sector. It is linked to the Shelter campaign to Evict Rogue Landlords. While the individual underhand practices deployed by landlords are very unpleasant, the impact of the programme will be mitigated by the problem that all research in this sector faces – that it is hard to quantify the scale of the problem. If one problem is that no one prosecutes rogue landlords, for example, then the statistics appear to show that unlawful behaviour by landlords isn’t a big problem. The logic is faulty – absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence – but convenient for those who have no wish to act. The majority of private tenants are happy with their current landlord. But that tells us nothing about how many tenancies they’ve moved on from because of poor treatment by a landlord.

Grant Shapps was interviewed briefly in the programme. His contribution had two key elements. First, he argued that the national registration scheme for private landlords proposed by the previous Labour government ran the risk of becoming a bureaucratic exercise and so was dropped. In fact, his argument here was a little less than clear. But the net result is that this type of regulatory scheme appears to be off the agenda. Second, he argued that there are lots of local authority powers and regulations already in existence to deal with problem private landlords.

This second point is correct but almost entirely irrelevant. Read more of this post

Think Tanks and the policy process: Right, wrong and possibly both at the same time

I’m currently halfway through The Conservative Party and Social Policy, edited by Hugh Bochel. The contributors chart recent developments in the policy agenda of the dominant Coalition partner. The book does a good job of conveying the protean nature of Conservative thought. Of course, one of the dangers of such an enterprise is that when assessing whether Cameron’s Conservativism represents continuity or change – traditional, neo-liberal or progressive – you’re driven to the conclusion that it’s too early to say. And that is precisely what the book does.

As well as having plenty to say on the substance of policy, the book also has something to say about the policy process, although that isn’t really central to its purpose. Read more of this post

The ethics of the case for public sector reform

[Originally posted on Liberal Democrat Voice, 24/02/11]

David Cameron’s article on public service reform in the Telegraph was the opening shot in what could be a significant battle both within the Coalition and across the House. The case presented raises at least three important ethical issues.

First, the way in which evidence is being used to justify these proposals is deeply suspect. Mr Cameron states that publicly providing bureaucratic and target-driven services might be worth supporting if they delivered quality services: “but the evidence shows otherwise. Whether it’s cancer survival rate, school results or crime, for too long we’ve been slipping against comparable countries“. These are very partial readings of the data. These claims in relation to both health and education have already been challenged and debunked a number of times over recent weeks. Yet they continue to be advanced as a justification for change. Read more of this post

Welfare reform in the dark

Today saw the introduction of the Welfare Reform bill to the House of Commons. Initial Impact Assessments were also published. This piece of legislation has been trailed for many months, but it will nonetheless take quite a while to fathom the detail of what is being proposed across the wide range of areas it touches on. And it will take just as long to explore how it interacts with policy developments in other areas. Much of the early buzz about the Bill was the news that the Government had dropped the proposal to cut Housing Benefit for those receiving JSA for more than 12 months. This is clearly an unusual outbreak of good sense. Many are claiming it as a victory for the Lib Dems, and Nick Clegg in particular. Later in the day we were being reminded not to get carried away with this change – important though it is – because the Bill continues to embody a range of contentious proposals for seismic change to welfare provision (see here at Left Foot Forward, for example).

As those who have read previous posts will know, I am very keen on summing the parts and trying to understand the big picture (see, for example, Piecing together the housing policy jigsaw). It is something that many government are not good at. This government seems particularly poor at it. But in an era of rapid and radical change it is all the more important. Read more of this post

Bluster and belief: Blue-tinged policy in health and housing

Today brought us two contrasting news stories which give further insight into the approach to policy making under the Coalition government. Today’s Guardian contains an interesting piece by Ben Goldacre on the reform of the NHS (available here), while the BBC have been carrying an item – triggered by a statement from the CIEH – about the problem of poor standards in the private rented sector in England, where it is estimated that 1 million properties are dangerous to live in.

What is interesting about these two policy areas is the way in which “evidence” features in the policy process and what leverage it has over the direction of policy. The contrast is sharp. Read more of this post

Curtailing access to Employment Tribunals – a liberal approach to fostering economic growth?

There is little disagreement that the economic growth figures for 2010 Q4 were very poor. When set alongside the performance of other developed economies they look even more anaemic. The Government is promising that the 2011 budget will be a budget for growth. But the Government is already bringing forward more focused initiatives with the justification that they are geared towards fostering private sector growth. Most recently Vince Cable has announced proposals for changes to employees’ access to Employment Tribunals.

The core proposal is that a worker will need to have been employed for two years, rather than the one year at present, before they are eligible to take a case of unfair dismissal to an Employment Tribunal. Defending a case that goes to Tribunal is expensive for employers, on average it is estimated to cost around £4,000. The argument is that the expense and bureaucratic nature of the process can act as a deterrent to taking on additional workers, particularly for small businesses. Lifting this burden will, the Government hopes, encourage employers to be more bullish in expanding their workforce.

The Government is also concerned that there has been a dramatic increase in cases taken to Employment Tribunal. The total number of claims rose between 2008-09 and 2009-10 by 56 per cent to 236,000. The Government suggests that its new approach will also be more effective in dealing with weak and vexatious claims. There is, of course, an implication there that the recent growth in claims is stuffed full of frivolous claims.

But is that a sensible inference for us to draw? Read more of this post

Why the unseemly haste on housing reform?

Earlier today my good friend Dave over at Nearly Legal, in a post about the Localism bill, put his finger on something that had been troubling me. Something strange and unusual is definitely afoot.

It is only a couple of weeks since the social housing reform consultation paper Local Decisions was launched on an unsuspecting world (I discussed it here). And yet yesterday we have the Localism Bill which embodies most of the key ideas in the consultation paper (CP). But hang on a minute, the consultation doesn’t close until mid-January. Many people haven’t got over the shock of the CP yet, let alone submitted a formal response. So there could be a tidal wave of criticism about to crash over the bows of Communities and Local Government. One would like to think that the government might be open to reviewing the wisdom of its strategy in the light of professional and public opinion. That is, after all, the point of running a consultation.

But clearly we are kidding ourselves. I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore, legislatively speaking. Read more of this post

The continuing saga of Housing Benefit “reform”: unaware or just don’t care?

The reform of Housing Benefit for private rented sector tenants made it back into the newspapers today. The Observer ran a story on the inside pages under the headline Ministers ‘bury’ report on cuts to housing benefit. The report they are referring to is the Impact Assessment (IA) entitled Housing Benefit: Changes to the Local Housing Allowance Arrangements. At one level, it is good that this document has emerged, given that earlier there were suggestions that evidence of impact was not going to be released until very late in the policymaking process (as I discussed here). I am not sure that the charges of “burying” the document really stand up to scrutiny. Impact Assessments are not the sort of documents that are generally published to great fanfare. Although I am sure that in this case Ministers would be very happy if the IA attracted even less attention than usual.

I happened to have been reading the IA on Friday and it struck me as a fascinating document, but not entirely for the reasons that Douglas Alexander identifies in the press today. It tells us something about the quality of thought that lies behind the proposals. Read more of this post

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