Policy Making in Britain: An Introduction


Peter Dorey

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  • Also by Peter Dorey:

    British Politics Since 1945

    The Conservative Party and the Trade Unions

    The Major Premiership: Politics and Policies Under John Major, 1990–7 (ed.)

    Wage Politics in Britain: The Rise and Fall of Incomes Policies Since 1945

    The 1964–70 Labour Governments (ed.)

    Developments in Public Policy in Britain Since 1945 (ed.) (available late 2005)


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    To Barry Jones — with sincerest thanks for all your support and encouragement, and wishing you a long and happy retirement.

    Excerpts from Book Reviews

    When I was a young man and first joined this Department … I thought [it] was Whitehall's equivalent of the signal box at Clapham Junction — we pulled the levers and guided activities or politics onto this track or that. I spent several happy years manipulating those levers. Only after a very long time did I realise there were no wires underneath them — they were connected to nothing at all.

    (Former Treasury official quoted in Peter Hennessy Whitehall, Pimlico, 2001: 398)

    The history of post-war British Cabinets has been a continuous story of people trying to do too much, believing that they had power over events which in fact they lacked, treating national circumstances as entirely within their control and twirling the wheel on the bridge as though every move would provide an instant response in some well-oiled engine room below.

    David Howell [former Minister], ‘lead book review’, The Political Quarterly, 58:1, 1987: 102)

    We knew ourselves to be as corrupt as any other community of our size … but there was no talebearing then, or ringing up 999: transgressors were dealt with by local opinion, by silence, by lampoons, by nicknames … it is certain that most of us… would have been rounded up under present law … Instead, we emerged … unclassified in criminal record…we were less ensnared by bye-laws … It is not crime that has increased, but its definition.

    (Laurie Lee, Cider With Rosie, The Book Club, 1959: 219–20)

    Tables and Figures



    One of the joys of having a book published is the opportunity to thank publicly all of those people who have inspired it, provided support and encouragement, and thereby made it possible.

    First, I would like to express my sincere thanks to Lucy Robinson and David Mainwaring at Sage, who originally approached me with the idea of writing a text on policy making in Britain. I would like to thank them, not only for commissioning the book and providing support and encouragement throughout, but also for their patience and understanding when — like an errant student — I kept asking for extensions to the submission deadline.

    I would also like to thank the various anonymous referees who read drafts of the chapters and offered ‘constructive criticisms’ on how they could be improved. I have tried to incorporate the majority of these and believe that their suggestions have significantly improved this text. I am deeply grateful to them and hope that they are happy with the finished product. Any deficiencies which remain are mine alone.

    Also deserving thanks are the hundreds of ‘public policy’ students I have taught over the years at Cardiff University, and who sustained my enjoyment of teaching (during a time when the obsession with research has taken over Higher Education). They also constantly reminded me about the lack of a suitable ‘core text’ on policy making in Britain, and so, in their own way, also provided the inspiration for this book. Some of them, I am delighted to hear, have subsequently embarked upon policy-related careers, working for: various British political parties; a range of government agencies; the Cabinet Office; MPs; the National Assembly for Wales; think tanks; the CBI; the civil service; and placements in the European Union.

    My colleagues in the Politics Section in the School of European Studies at Cardiff University also deserve special mention. In particular, I would like to express my sincere thanks to David Broughton, Mark Donovan, Steve Marsh, Peter Sutch and Stephen Thornton. In the over-regulated, RAE-obsessed tyranny that is academia today, they have helped to support and sustain me with their encouragement, good humour, integrity and professionalism.

    So too has Barry Jones, with whom I devised the Final Year Public Policy course back in the mid-1990s, and with whom I subsequently co-taught it. I am particularly indebted to Barry for his advice and wisdom over the years, not to mention his reservoir of anecdotes (many of them unrepeatable!) derived from 30 years of teaching in Higher Education. Now that Barry has retired, he will be greatly missed, and it is to him that I would like to dedicate this book.

    Finally, I would like to thank my wife, Jane — her love, affection and unstinting support make all the difference between living, and merely existing.

    PeteDoreyBath, Somerset November 2004

    Abbreviations and Acronyms

    ALFAnimal Liberation Front
    ASBOAnti-social Behaviour Order
    BBCBritish Broadcasting Corporation
    BMABritish Medical Association
    CAPCommon Agricultural Policy
    CBIConfederation of British Industry
    CNDCampaign for Nuclear Disarmament
    CPAGChild Poverty Action Group
    CPSCentre for Policy Studies
    CRECommission for Racial Equality
    CSAChild Support Agency
    DEFRADepartment of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
    DESDepartment for Education and Science
    DOEDepartment of Education
    DOHDepartment of Health
    DSSDepartment of Social Security
    DTIDepartment of Trade and Industry
    EDMEarly Day Motion
    EECEuropean Economic Community
    EMUEconomic and Monetary Union
    EOCEqual Opportunities Commission
    ERMExchange Rate Mechanism
    EUEuropean Union
    FCOForeign and Commonwealth Office
    G7Economic summits comprizing Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and United States
    G8As above, but with additional membership of Russia (since 1998)
    GLAGreater London Authority
    IGOInternational Governmental Organization
    IMFInternational Monetary Fund
    INGOInternational Non-governmental Organization
    IODInstitute of Directors
    IPPRInstitute for Public Policy Research
    LEALocal Education Authority
    LSELondon School of Economics
    MAFFMinistry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
    MOTMinistry of Transport
    MSCManpower Services Commission
    MSPMember of the Scottish Parliament
    NATONorth Atlantic Treaty Organization
    NEDCNational Economic Development Council
    NFUNational Farmers Union
    NHSNational Health Service
    NINational Insurance
    NUSNational Union of Students
    OFGASOffice of Gas Supply
    OFGEMOffice of Gas and Electricity Markets
    OFSTEDOffice for Standards in Education
    OFTELOffice of Telecommunications
    OFWATOffice of Water Services
    PFIPrivate Finance Initiative
    PLPParliamentary Labour Party
    PPPPublic-Private Partnership
    PPSParliamentary Private Secretary
    PROPublic Record Office
    PSBRPublic Sector Borrowing Requirement
    QMVQualified Majority Voting
    RAEResearch Assessment Exercise
    SDPSocial Democratic Party
    SMPScottish Member of Parliament
    TECTraining and Enterprise Council
    TUCTrades Union Congress
  • Glossary

    All-party Committee Parliamentary committee comprising MPs from any of the political parties, with a shared interest in a particular policy area. Much more broad-ranging in their topics and areas of interest, and hence much more numerous, than the backbench subject committees.

    Backbench subject committee Parliamentary committee in each of the main political parties, comprising MPs from the party who have a shared interest in a particular policy area. Often corresponding closely to the policy areas covered by the main government departments, hence they are far fewer in number than the All-party committees. Can provide a useful channel of communication between the governing party's MPs and the relevant minister(s), and may occasionally or indirectly influence particular policies.

    Bilaterals Meetings between two ministers, such as Prime Minister and a Cabinet Minister, Prime Minister and Chancellor, Chief Secretary to the Treasury and a ‘spending’ minister, or two senior ministers whose respective departments have a common concern over a policy initiative or problem, on which they need to work together.

    Cabinet Office Comprising six secretariats and four ‘units’, the Cabinet Office facilitates the work of the Cabinet and its various committees, while also coordinating the work of ministers and their departments. Also plays a vital role in helping the Prime Minister to oversee the development and progress of the government's policies and overall strategy.

    Core executive The key individuals and institutions concerned with policy making and coordination, at the heart of the British political system. In particular, the core executive comprises the Prime Minister, Cabinet and its ministers (particularly the senior ones), Cabinet committees, the Cabinet Office, government departments, senior civil servants, along with their ‘official’ committees, and Special Advisers.

    Departmentalism (i) The operational philosophy and outlook which has become embedded in a department over a long period of time, and which shapes its approach to particular policy issues; (ii) the tendency of some Cabinet Ministers to ‘go native’, and promote or defend their department's interests first and foremost, in Cabinet or Cabinet committee, possibly to the neglect of the Cabinet's overall objectives or strategy.

    Differentiated polity Term used to characterize the contemporary British political system, whereby the ‘hollowing-out’ or ‘rolling back’ of the state has apparently resulted in a more fragmented system, with both more levels and more policy actors. Inextricably linked to the notion of governance (see below), it has clear implications for the policy process, namely that the involvement of more actors at various levels — national, subnational, regional and local — as well as from the public, private and voluntary sectors, renders much policy making and implementation more complex and messy, with a premium placed on coordination, and with central government ‘steering’ rather than simply directing or controlling.

    Europeanization The increasing influence and impact of the European Union on public policies in Britain, and the manner in which Britain's policy-making institutions are responding and adapting to this trend.

    Evidence-based policy making Developing policies on the basis of ‘what works’, with policy makers examining the impact and evaluating the success of ‘pilot schemes’ before implementing a policy more generally or widely. Can also involve policy transfer, whereby the success of a policy implemented elsewhere (in another city, region or country) is evaluated before being adopted by other policy makers. Represents an attempt at instilling greater rationality into policy making.

    Globalization The increasing interconnectedness and interdependence of countries and their economic, political and social systems, and the increasingly international nature of various problems (AIDS, drug trafficking, pollution, terrorism, etc.). Usually viewed in terms of the constraints which globalization increasingly places on national policy makers and domestic public policies (particularly economic policies), and the growing need for international cooperation or coordination vis-à-vis public policy.

    Governance The trend, since the 1980s, towards increasing fragmentation and multiplication of policy making arenas, and a growing number of policy actors at national, regional and local levels. Leads to a growing need for bargaining, exchange of resources and contracts between a plethora of policy actors at different levels vertically, and across a range of policy sectors horizontally, with central government often confined to the nonetheless vitally important roles of coordination, steering, supervision, strategic oversight and target setting.

    Incrementalism Concept popularized by Charles Lindblom, referring to the step-by-step approach to developing public policy. Claims to be a ‘realist’ approach, in that it recognizes the various practical constraints — time, expertise, limited information, resources, potential opposition from other actors — facing policy makers, and the contexts within which they operate, and which therefore militate against radical changes and new initiatives. Instead, emphasizes the evolutionary character of most public policies, and the manner in which effective changes are usually gradual — what Lindblom referred to as ‘muddling through’.

    Institutional agenda The policy issues, objectives or problems with which government departments and ministers are primarily concerned at any particular juncture. Comprises the issues which the elite level of formal policy makers consider to be most important at any given juncture.

    Issue attention cycle Concept developed by Downs, this refers to the manner in which public or political interest in an issue goes through a series of phases, whereby recognition of a problem leads to widespread or vocal demands for political action, and the issue reaches the institutional agenda. However, when the costs or other implications of solving the problem become apparent — or the problem is actually solved — interest in it evaporates, and the issue slips back down or off the agenda, but may well rise back up it at a later stage if the problem re-emerges.

    Issue network A relatively loose and open range of organized (some more organized than others) interests in a sphere of policy. However, the policy may well be interdepartmental, and this, along with the diversity of organized interests involved, means that involvement in policy making and implementation is less stable or consistent. Issue networks are therefore deemed to be at the opposite end of a policy networks continuum to policy communities (see below)

    Junior minister Ministers below Secretary of State or Cabinet rank, namely Minister of State, and (Parliamentary) Under-Secretary, who are allocated specific policy responsibilities within a government department. Their number has increased significantly during the last 100 years, reflecting the increasing range of policy responsibilities of governments, the increasing complexity of particular areas of public policy, and thus the increasing workloads of, and specialization needed within, government departments.

    Special (Policy) Advisers Appointed by ministers, including the Prime Minister, to provide an alternative (to the civil service) source of policy advice and ideas. In the case of the Prime Minister, such advisers can also provide counter-proposals to those advanced by Cabinet ministers. Their number and apparent influence have increased significantly since the 1980s, as ministers have sought wider or alternative sources of advice than that traditionally proffered by senior civil servants.

    Policy community A close and relatively closed relationship between a group of policy actors in a particular policy subsystem, usually based around a government department and its ‘client’ organized interest(s), who work closely together in developing and implementing public policy. Policy communities tend to foster relative policy continuity, with significant policy change occurring only rarely, usually prompted by a crisis, a substantial ideological shift, or the discovery of new evidence or knowledge which challenges the norms and assumptions which have hitherto sustained and legitimized the policy community.

    Policy inheritance Concept popularized by Richard Rose, to explain how and why new

    governments are invariably obliged to accept and continue with many, if not most, of the policies and programmes already operational upon entering office. Many of these are long standing (possibly decades old), deeply embedded, and possibly have millions of beneficiaries, including the departments who administer them. Consequently, new governments and ministers invariably find their room for manoeuvre limited, soon recognizing the difficulties in repealing or abandoning many existing programmes and policies. Hence a tendency towards incrementalism in many policy areas.

    Policy learning The process whereby policy makers examine previous policies, or similar policies pursued elsewhere, in order to ascertain what lessons can be learned, and/or how to avoid making mistakes.

    Policy network Overarching concept of which issue networks and policy communities are the most notable variants. It emphasizes the role and prevalence of organized interests in the policy process, and their relationship or interaction with formal policy makers and governmental institutions, particularly departments and ministries.

    Policy stream The second of the ‘streams’ identified by John Kingdon, whereby policy or policies favoured by some actors are recommended to tackle a particular problem. Crucially, however, because the polices may be based on particular values or ideological beliefs, they may be developed first, and only afterwards is a problem sought to which the policy can be applied, and the apparent necessity or attractiveness of the policy illustrated. Even then, however, the policy might not be adopted by formal policy makers if the circumstances are not appropriate (see political stream and policy window below).

    Policy style The dominant mode or process of policy making, usually at national level in a particular country, although can also refer to the prevailing mode of policy making in a policy subsystem. Until recently, for example, Britain was deemed to have a reactive and incremental policy style with a strong emphasis on ‘bureaucratic accommodation’. Most policies were subject to only relatively minor or piecemeal changes, and there was a strong emphasis on short-term problem-solving, and reacting to issues as and when they arose, rather than seeking to anticipate them.

    Policy sector/subsystem The particular actors and processes in a specific sphere of policy, such as agriculture, education, health, transport, etc. Reflects the extent to which the political system is often characterized by ‘sectorization’, whereby departments and their ‘client’ groups have enjoyed relative autonomy in their sphere of policy.

    Policy transfer Concept popularized during the 1990s, in reference to the way that some policies are deliberately ‘copied’ from other countries or regimes, and applied in British context. Policy makers look to other countries to see how they have tackled certain problems and then develop similar policies to be implemented in Britain. A number of policies in Britain since the 1990s have been ‘transferred’ from the USA, although Australia has also been a source of ideas for some policy initiatives (see also policy learning and evidence-based policy making).

    Policy window A short-lived or temporary opportunity for pursuing significant policy change. Occurs when the three ‘policy streams’ (identified by John Kingdon) flow together, so that appropriate political circumstances exist to apply a particular policy solution to a particular policy problem or issue. If there is any delay — for example, a suitable policy is not readily available — then the policy window is likely to close, and circumstances change, so that the chance to introduce the policy may be lost indefinitely.

    Political stream The third of John Kingdon's policy streams, whereby the ‘correct;’ political situation or circumstances arises in which particular solutions to a particular problem can be implemented. This may entail a change of government, the rise to prominence of a particular ideological faction in the governing party, or a crisis which enables policy makers to jettison the existing policy in favour of a new one. When the political stream merges with the problem and policy streams, a policy window is said to open, but does not usually remain open for long.

    Problem stream One of the three streams which, according to John Kingdon, need to flow together to effect a change in public policy. This first stream entails the identification of a problem by a set of policy actors or advocates, although formal policy makers may not yet accept that the problems are serious enough to warrant attention. Alternatively, there may be a lack of feasible policies available to tackle the problem(s), and/or political circumstances may not be appropriate.

    Policy Directorate Crucial part of the Prime Minister's Office (known as the Policy Unit until 2001) which both provides policy advice for the Prime Minister, and provides a vital conduit between 10 Downing Street and the various government departments. Enables the Prime Minister to keep abreast of policy developments and progress in his/her ministers’ departments, and can, on occasions, ‘chase up’ ministers whose progress in pursuing an agreed policy appears to be too slow.

    Prelegislative scrutiny (or prelegislative committee) Consideration of a draft or proposed Bill, usually by a departmental select committee, before it is formally presented to Parliament for its First Reading. This enables ‘interested parties’ or experts to offer advice or criticism about proposed legislation, in the hope that the draft Bill will be modified accordingly before being formally introduced. Prelegislative scrutiny/committees can be said to provide Parliament with a slightly more active policy role than it has enjoyed hitherto, and might also be viewed as part of the recent trend towards ‘evidence-based policy’.

    Private Members' Bill A Bill introduced by a backbench MP, normally on a topic of his/her choosing (provided that it does not presage increased public expenditure), although they may be persuaded to a introduce a Bill on behalf of the government, or, more commonly, on behalf of an organized interest. Many Private Members' Bills fail to reach the statute book due to lack of parliamentary time, although they may serve to push an issue onto the policy agenda, and maybe prompt government legislation in the not too distant future.

    Rational policy making Associated with Herbert Simon, who devised a model of the policy process in which policy makers identify their goals, identify the options available to achieve them, evaluate the advantages, disadvantages and likely consequences of each one, and then select the option which is most advantageous. Simon recognized that this was not how decisions were actually taken, and he recognized that ‘real life’ policy makers would face a range of practical difficulties in adhering closely to this model, but he did suggest that the model could help introduce a greater degree of rationality into the policy-making process than had existed hitherto.

    Report Stage Occurring immediately after a Bill's (standing) committee stage, this is the debate, open to all MPs, on the revised Bill, in the light of amendments made in committee. Further amendments can be tabled at this stage.

    Second Reading A debate on the principles and purpose of a Bill, with the government (via the ‘sponsoring’ minister) explaining why the Bill is desirable and should therefore be supported, and the Opposition usually arguing that the Bill is inappropriate or irrelevant vis-à-vis the problem it purports to remedy, and ought thus to be opposed.

    Select Committee Parliamentary body which examines the implementation and operation of government policies, as well as associated expenditure. Each of the main government departments is ‘shadowed’ by a particular Select Committee, which chooses its topic of inquiry, and then examines relevant documents, invites written submissions from individuals and organizations affected by the policy under investigation, and verbally questions invited individuals, representatives, senior civil servants and ministers themselves. Critical select committee reports sometimes prompt changes to existing policy.

    Standing Committee Parliamentary stage of a Bill which follows a successful Second Reading. Usually comprising 16–25 MPs, a Standing Committee scrutinizes a Bill in detail, which usually entails a number of amendments being ‘tabled’ to improve it, and eradicate inconsistencies or ambiguities which have been identified.

    Street level bureaucrats Those who actually implement policies ‘on the ground’, such as local government officers, nurses, police officers, social workers, teachers, traffic wardens, etc. The manner in which they interpret and implement policies can have a significant impact on whether the policies are a success or a failure.

    Systemic agenda The range of issues and problems which formal policy makers are being urged to address, at any given juncture, by individuals and organizations in society be they academics, journalists, organized interests, political parties or think tanks, for example. These ‘actors’ will often advocate particular policies which they believe ought to be adopted, in order successfully to tackle the issue or problem they have identified. Ultimately, those who constitute part of the ‘systemic agenda’ are invariably seeking to influence the institutional agenda.

    Third Reading Final Debate on a Bill in the House of Commons prior to it being sent to the House of Lords (or to the House of Commons if it was first introduced in the House of Lords) following Report Stage. No further amendments are tabled during Third Reading.

    Trilaterals Meeting between three ministers, often comprising the Prime Minister, Chancellor and a departmental minister. Such meetings have become more popular during the premiership of Tony Blair.


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