It’s time to just muddle through

Harold Wilson said that he was at his best ‘in a messy, middle of the road muddle’. I think this speaks to many of the ways we actually do policy in England. It might not be perfect, it might not get your heart racing, it ain’t sexy, it’s not ideologically left or right, but at the end of the day, we tend to just muddle through in a messy way.

Take for example, the role of the business-led, local enterprise partnerships (LEPs). When the coalition government came into power, they had gusto, an ideological fervour for ‘creative disruption’, a stridency for ‘business knows best’ and getting ‘public sector out of the way’. Thus they got rid of public sector economic development bureaucracy, such as the regional development agencies, replacing them with the local enterprise partnerships. LEPs might not be the best, they are under resourced, they lack legal status and they have poor links to planning system. However, as time has passed, the dust of disruption is settling, and it is now important to just start accepting our lot and muddling through with them.

The time for silly caricatures must pass. The public sector is not in the main bureaucratic, whilst the private sector are not ‘greedy’. The idea that business was fettered by public policy was silly. All businesses and the wider economy need public sector inputs. When it comes to joining things up, appreciating wider impacts, and understanding inputs such as labour market, skills, or infrastructure, public policy practitioners often know best. Where would business be without highways, lighting, an educated workforce etc? Economic return on public policy activity and investment is a fact, which is often overlooked. However, when it comes to interpreting markets, planning and selling stuff, making profit, financial control, the business sector may well be better than the public sector.

Some private and public bodies on LEPs (though they might not wish to acknowledge it) might be waltzing around in some culture of mistrust. There might be some thinking which clings onto a certainty that business knows best.  However, it’s wrong and false to think that just because economic planning and LEPs are business led that business principles alone will secure economic success for areas. They won’t. There may also be public sector thinking that views business as partial and unrealistic. However, any of this jurassic thinking on both sides needs to slide away. We need to muddle through.

Muddling through will mean that we cannot be precious about who knows best, in what context. It will vary. But we know four things.

– Policy needs to more porous to business interests, and in part driven by it.
– Business is too good at running business, to start fumbling around with the detailed policy process.
– More decentralised powers and resources need to be picked up by all LEPs (Like those associated with city deals)
– Greater cooperation. It’s about a meeting of public policy skills and business acumen in place.

Any success needs to recognise this interdependency, and do what it can. It’s taken a while, it might not work and it feels unsatisfying. This is a messy middle of the road muddle.


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Jill Carter
Jill Carter
12 years ago

Great blog Neil, I so much agree that a spirit of co-operation is needed, not criticism, self-glorification or rants about past mistakes. Let’s be positive – critics should offer their help, not just stand on the sideline booing!

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