Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

Pause before you promise. Most politicians will spend the long pre-election period campaigning rather than governing. You have to win office before you can use it. But, too often, pledges are made without enough thought for how they can be implemented. When difficulties arise voters become disillusioned, as shown by the Conservatives’ problems over welfare reform and the backlash against the Liberal Democrats over higher tuition fees.

A Populus poll for the Institute for Government, published on Wednesday, shows voters are not confident politicians know how they will implement their policy pledges, nor how they will pay for them. They want politicians to focus on the long term and not to make pre-election promises if they are not sure they will be able to afford them. This applies to all parties and, as the Scottish independence referendum campaign has shown, voters are sceptical about promises and assurances offered by national politicians without firm evidence of action.

The challenges and constraints are easy to define. Whatever their policy preferences, all parties know that in 2015 they will have to tackle the budget deficit while trying to achieve sustainable growth and improve public services.

They will also have to address long-term problems of an ageing population, energy security and lifestyle-related health problems. And politicians know that they will have to share power with other parties if no one wins an overall majority, and with increasingly strong power centres within the UK.

On the budget deficit, much has been cut in the current parliament, especially in administrative costs at the centre, though with less public protest than many expected in 2010. Things will be harder from now on. That argues for a less hurried spending review next year, in order to avoid the problems seen in 2010 over the rushed defence and security review. It would be sensible to agree programmes of expenditure for a full five years, linked to the life of the fixed-term parliament, so as not to repeat last year’s largely pointless midterm review.

Similarly, the emphasis should be on collaboration between departments to find savings, avoid duplication and transform services. This is very different from the usual Treasury bargaining with individual departments.

Similarly, many of the obstacles to growth – from tackling airport capacity in the southeast to improving other parts of the transport and energy infrastructure – require a different approach. France and Australia both have permanent institutions to ensure public involvement at an early stage and to develop a credible base of evidence for decisions about infrastructure.

Such wider, and early, public engagement is strongly backed by the poll. Local leaders need to be given a stake in growth through decentralisation of power and money to England’s city regions. A similar willingness to experiment, consult and build consensus is needed on big long-term policy challenges; the commission on pensions, led by Adair Turner in the last decade, was a model. There have been some good innovations from both ministers and senior officials since 2010; Whitehall is much more open to fresh thinking and practice than it used to be.

Government is about more than making policy; it also involves supporting changes already under way to improve skills in commissioning services, given problems over outsourcing, and in running big projects.

It is tempting, though mistaken, to regard all this as technocratic and managerial. The reverse is true. Our advice is very political, but not partisan. It is about how to get the politics right. It is about helping politicians understand that, whatever their policies, they need plans to implement them and their approach needs to be different from the past. Of course, politicians are now going to concentrate on campaigning – but, unless they think before they promise, their chances of governing successfully will be much reduced.

The writer is director of the Institute for Government

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.