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13 March 2024

We must be passionately dispassionate about policymaking

Michael Sanders

Any future government should commit to keeping the What Works network

Illustration of three people inspecting an oversized clipboard

Politics is an arduous business – either in electoral politics or the politics of campaigning, it demands of its practitioners hard work, unrelenting determination often in the face of insurmountable odds, and a clear sense in the cause you are promoting.

This is almost impossible to fake – even if sometimes the cause that a politician is advancing is their own success and influence. It cannot be pursued, in the long term, by anyone without a fiery passion for it.

It is not a new insight to reflect that governing – the work of public administration – is a task that, while demanding commitment and hard work, is often less thrilling than the politicking that got you to the stage where you could govern. It’s a cliché that you campaign in poetry and govern in prose, but it is a cliché for a reason.

Administering is different to campaigning in that it both benefits from, and is hampered by, contact with reality. Most policies are neither as wildly successful as their originators hope, not as cataclysmically disastrous as their opponents claim they will be. Governing is boring, because it requires dispassion, and benefits from a cold assessment of reality as it is. As a lifelong technocrat, focused on the particularly nerdy question of identifying precisely how impactful a policy is (or isn’t), public administration has always appealed to me much more than the politics. But even I, in an election year, have to turn a little to the politics, and how passion and dispassion mix.

Both leaders of the main parties, Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer, are widely thought to be boring, not least by opponents on their own sides, and particularly those who remain loyalists to their immediate predecessors, Liz Truss and Jeremy Corbyn, neither of whom could have been accused of being unexciting. One electrified the left of the Labour party into believing in a more outright socialist utopian vision than we had seen for some decades, while the other, in an effort to slam on the accelerator of economic growth, promptly crashed the economy into a wall.

This boringness need not be a vice, for either party. The country faces real challenges, which will not be solved by exciting words and promises, but by real policies enacted to the benefit of real people. Many things that seem like good ideas now – from one political perspective or another – will turn out not to make much difference, or will be so costly to administer that the light will not be worth the candle. Being able to tell the difference between effective and ineffective policies at a time of straitened economic circumstances will be the difference between success and failure for a government of any colour.

The most boring thing that the coalition government did was probably the establishment of the What Works centres, a network of institutions independent of government across a range of policy areas that are dedicated to building evidence on the effectiveness of different policies and practices, to help people make better decisions about what to invest scarce time, energy, and taxpayer money into. Gradual expansions of the network were among the least exciting activities of Boris Johnson and even Theresa May’s tenures as prime minister.

But these centres, and the more general investment in evaluation and evidence-based policymaking, has the potential to reshape tens of hundreds or billions of pounds of government spending towards incrementally better uses. Making better use of our money in areas like education, homelessness, economic growth and health by dispassionately producing high-quality evidence and following where it leads is a boring process that produces exciting results.

All parties could commit to continuing to achieving their goals – social mobility, a green transition, revitalising the NHS – in ways that follow the evidence that already exists, and by testing the effectiveness of all of their new ideas – admitting when they don’t work, and trying something else. Enormous changes in life expectancy and quality of life over the last 80 years can be laid at the door of evidence-based medicine, and its dispassionately throwing out the relics of the eminence-based medicine that preceded it. Passionately embracing this dispassionate approach to policymaking might be the only way to dig ourselves out of our current malaise. Now wouldn’t that be something worth getting excited about?


Michael Sanders is Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Experimental Government Team at the Policy Institute, King’s College London.

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Michael Sanders

Professor of Public Policy