Open-ended Complex Policy Solving


“Mr Glibbly: Please just get rid of this stupid, unworkable EBacc policy – we don’t want anything in exchange for it”

You may, or may well have not, noticed that All Change Please! has been strangely quiet recently. That’s mainly because there has been Very Little Change Please! about in terms of education over the past few months, and also, as several commentators have noticed, the world of politics is now far more self-satirical than your actual satire can ever be.

Anyway, All Change Please! has recently been thinking about all these proposed Governmental Policies that have recently issued forth and then been sent back in again because they weren’t working or indeed wanted, and started wondering who actually writes them and whether they have the faintest idea what they are actually proposing?

In most organisations, institutions and businesses, everything starts and ends with policy. A policy is a positive principle to guide decisions and achieve required outcomes. Policies tend to be determined by those ‘at the top’, to be put into practice by Senior Managers and passed down through middle managers to the worker-ants below. Policy determines what should and shouldn’t be done, what is and isn’t acceptable, and most importantly, if funding will be provided for it. If something contradicts policy, it just can’t be done – it’s as simple as that. Policy says No! This often makes innovation within management structures difficult, because any significant change is likely to involve reviewing and rewriting policy.

Good policy statements are crucial to success, and it would therefore seem to make sense to invest time, resources and expertise into ensuring they are going to be effective, appropriate, and above all, deliverable. Yet in practice, that’s rarely what happens. Most policy statements, while perhaps laudable in their intent, are prepared with little reference to the practicalities of their implementation or the effect they might have. They are often written by academics, administrators and civil servants with little experience of reality or how to actually set about successfully solving complex, open-ended problems. Too many high-flying academic students leave school and Russell Group Universities for senior positions in management or politics with next-to-no understanding or experience of real-world problem-solving and communication.

Indeed the policy-writing process seems to be: identify the problem, consider options, make decisions, publish and implement. This bears a certain resemblance to what is known more widely as the problem-solving process – but with one major difference, in that there is no attempt to model, test, evaluate and iterate possible solutions before and while they are being implemented. Further difficulties often occur when a policy is then briefed and specified because those charged with doing so are insufficiently trained or experienced in defining and effectively communicating the parameters of what can and can’t be done to achieve the desired outcome.

Here’s an insider account account of the policy writing process: The Mysteries of Government Policy. To summarise the author’s account of the way it works:

1. Ignore all past documents on the subject to give yourself a fresh perspective.

2. To upset stakeholders, send the draft out for comment but delay consultation until after the draft has been finalised and too late to change.

3. To ensure it is already out-dated, delay publication by taking as long as possible to respond to comments to the consultation in full.

4. Maximise publicity for the policy release, but try to ensure no-one knows it was written by you.

5. Sit back and watch as people discover that the policy is almost impossible to implement and creates more problems than before it was decided that a new policy was needed.

Meanwhile back in school, let’s take the familiar example of a Behaviour Policy. Often carefully and clearly worded by the SMT it’s published in the handbook and staff and students are expected to abide by it. Except of course in many cases they don’t. That’s because in the reality of the classroom, corridor and playground it’s not as simple as that. To be successful, a good policy needs to be supported on a daily basis by SMT who will need to spend time evaluating how well it is working and what the problems are, and then developing and continually evolving the policy as circumstances change. There also needs to be opportunity for staff and student participation in the process. It may well be that both staff and students need assistance or training in understanding how to apply the policy and how it only works if everyone follows it. If only creating Government Policy worked this way…

Similarly, a manufacturing company would never proceed to invest in the production of a million or so newly designed widgets unless it was absolutely sure they worked properly, that there was a popular market for them, that they could be effectively distributed, and made and sold profitably. And future models would be continually updated to increase sales or encourage repeat purchases. But for some reason this rational approach just doesn’t seem to apply to Government Policy-making.

And here’s OFSTED’s Amanda Spielman announcing that perhaps their policies over the past 25 years have not been successful as they should have been, and in future a bit more participation with teachers and researchers might just be a good idea.  But as Michelle Hanson points out, the damage has already been well and truly done.

Until a way is found to improve the way the Df-ingE formulates future government policy through stakeholder participation, extensive trials, rigorous evaluation and a commitment to support long-term support and review, desirable change in what goes on in our schools is unlikely to happen. And in the meanwhile it seems crazy that at present there is no structured or coordinated programme of teaching and learning problem-identification and problem-solving for all children in our schools. A little bit of creativity wouldn’t go amiss either. But of course that can’t happen until it becomes policy…


Image credit: Flickr/Policy Exchange