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No such thing as ‘steady as she goes’ in government policy

An interesting report is published by the Institute for Government. Called ‘All Change’, the study examined three areas of policy – further education, industrial strategy and regional governance. And it found, as its title implies, that there’s no such thing as ‘steady as she goes’

Further education (FE) is a continuing ‘hot potato’. The report found that, in the FE sector, since the 1980s, there have been 28 major pieces of legislation, 48 secretaries of state with relevant responsibilities and no organisation has survived longer than a decade. Industrial strategy is better, but not a lot. Here, it says there have been at least two industrial strategies in the last decade – and points to the recently published Industrial Strategy as a third.

One of the continuing areas of discussion is the need to boost the number of students pursuing STEM related subjects. Reports continue to point to a significant shortage in the number of people working in the UK’s engineering sector. And the report lays the blame squarely at government’s feet. ‘The failure to develop adequately a stable FE system,’ it contends, ‘contributes to skills shortages – a major factor in the UK’s productivity problem.’

Not only that, but there are now said to be 13,000 vocational qualifications. Political commentator Phil Collins contributed to the report, noting: “The vocational sector is an ‘alphabet soup’ of providers, with acronyms that change every year. Students are horribly confused about which programmes are valued by employers and nobody has any confidence that a qualification will lead to work or pay progression or even exist in a few years’ time.”

Here’s the report’s analysis of weakness in the FE sector:

  • competing and often conflicting ideas about what the sector is for
  • a high level of discretion that ministers have to make changes to the system
  • organisations not being given time to bed in and make progress on reforms
  • poor levels of ‘institutional memory’ in Whitehall.

When it comes to industrial strategy, it found:

  • disagreement about the relationship between industry and government
  • personal conflict and authority – particularly the relationship between the Prime Minister and other relevant ministers
  • fluctuations in resources; and
  • organisational confusion and weakness.

The report says its central message is that change happens far too often and too casually. ‘New legislation replaces old; organisations are founded and abolished; policies are launched and relaunched; programmes are created and abandoned – all at an alarming rate’.

Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to reshuffle her Cabinet today. Will the incoming ministers be able to resist the urge to ‘shake things up’?

Author
Graham Pitcher

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