The need for a Slow Policy movement

(I was not aware when writing this blog of this 2005 paper by Peter Bate which has a similar theme and which draws on In Praise of Slow by Carl Honore, also new to me. Some ideas percolate, well, slowly.)

There is a slow food movement, which began in Italy, based on the belief that fast food lacks real nourishment and flavour and that its intensive production methods and short cuts are unsustainable for the environment within which it is grown and produced. Slow food is produced with time, care and the understanding of local culture, farming and ecology which can only be developed over years, or even generations. It tends to value small-scale production for its sustainability and for being rooted in community and place.

At present, government and the NHS express the importance of a policy change through the urgency of the deadlines they set themselves and their partners and the amount of money they can ‘find’ in an emergency to fund the change. NHS Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STPs), in which every area was required to set out how its health system would transform itself to survive the current resource crisis and become sustainable, were clearly important, and therefore urgent. So, most were drafted by small groups of very senior people, who regretted they had not the time nor resources to engage widely, particularly with charities, grassroots groups and people with lived experience who are the most complex and time-consuming to find and talk to. It is no surprise that STPs, despite many containing necessary and pragmatic ideas, have been widely reported by the media as ‘secret NHS cuts plans’.

This cycle of crisis, frenzied activity and shallow changes is endlessly repeated. The urgency turns out to be illusory every time: whilst a report will be rushed out in months, underlying causes of problems will remain unaddressed for years. STPs are morphing into the next set of initials whilst the NHS and social care continue to go bust.

We need a slow policy movement in our public services: a new norm for how to create change. No more flurries of reports and plans from the same group of highly paid people, who remain embedded in group-think. No more heroic leaders on a mission to fix things.

Instead, the slow policy approach would be to cultivate different people and networks which are more deeply-rooted in the lives and service cultures of those affected: people with lived experience, their families and front line workers, who all need training, preparation and a slower pace in order to contribute meaningfully. A change programme would examine the problem or challenge from the point of view of people use services, families, front line workers and people who do not or cannot currently access the service. The conversations with them will start with “What does a good life look like?” not “How can we improve, cut or close replace our service?” The questions will include, “What are you willing to contribute to achieving the goal we all agree is important?” (which is a different question to “Will you pay for our service?”, or “Will you volunteer for us?”)

In place of short term pilots generating tentative findings, new models should be implemented on a small scale but with a plan to scale them up incrementally if they appear to be working, until they replace the current system. As my colleagues in Local Area Coordination say, ‘move slowly, to move fast’. With people who use services genuinely involved in their design and delivery, we would finally have the confidence to remove resources from models which do not work, rather than continuing to resource the status quo, regardless of how much more effective new models proved.

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