Policy and Resources Plan


Policy and Resources Plan

Soon after the Policy & Resources Committee first met, it was announced that all States Members would be invited to two workshops to help shape the vision and direction of travel for government policy, for the next four years and beyond. The first of those workshops takes place tomorrow.

This planning process, which will result in a Policy & Resources Plan for the States, is outlined in section 7.4 of the second report of the States Review Committee. We are shown how the process will unfold: it will start with “a statement of broad States’ objectives for the long term (say, 20 years) and the medium term (say, 5 years)” which will shape all aspects of States’ business, from tax policies to justice; community safety to the environment; health and wellbeing to external affairs. Once this is established, individual Committees will develop their own policy plans – in negotiation with the Policy & Resources Committee – in a way that reflects these longer-term aims.

The States Review Committee was at pains to emphasise that the plan must be “straightforward, flexible and unbureaucratic.” It’s intended, I believe, as a guideline to shape the way this States forms policy, organises its priorities and allocates its resources. It won’t be gospel.

It must, however, be strong enough to provide a framework within which the States can make some really tough decisions about what it will (and won’t) do over this term of government.

At its heart, there will be a vision. The conversation about the right vision for Guernsey and Alderney was started by our ‘Prumier’ (still love the Guernsey-French titles!), Deputy St Pier, in his speech to the Institute of Directors during the last States’ term. He said: “My vision for the island and our community is the same as my vision for my family … That we are the healthiest and happiest and most fulfilled that we are capable of being.”

Those values are so abstract and so self-evidently good that it is pretty much impossible to disagree – and I won’t be surprised if the States settles on a vision statement which is not all that different. I would be happy to do so. But each of those words carries multiple definitions. What does it mean to be the healthiest community? Does it mean that we want to live longer, or that we want to live better within the lifespan we have? If the former, we might invest most of our resources in new medical treatments and technologies which are capable of extending life; if the latter, we might invest in improving quality of life, supportive care, and social inclusion for people with long-term health conditions or disabilities. In both cases, promoting the general health and wellbeing of the population (e.g. through tobacco control or physical activity) will also be important. A vision is vital because it provides the basis for a framework – but, over the course of this planning process, the States must get to grips with the knotty question of what that vision really means in terms of the choices and trade-offs we make, if it is to be of any use in policy-making and prioritisation.

The steps of a health promotion planning model I recently encountered perhaps reflect the stages that the States will have to go through in this process. Step 1 is the “social assessment” – understanding the values of the community and the quality of life that’s important to them. That’s like defining the vision. Step 2 is the “epidemiological assessment” (a health term) – for us, that would be translating the vision into a framework of clearly articulated goals and values which allow us, when faced with difficult trade-offs, to say “this route is more consistent with our aims for Guernsey & Alderney than that one.” Step 3 and beyond tie into the Committee-level policy plans, which convert these goals into specific, prioritised programmes of action. I find this model a helpful reference point because it shows we’re not reinventing the wheel, and may help me to think about things we might be overlooking, as the process goes on. I’m sure there must be other useful models for policy planning out there, too, and would welcome any suggestions for further reading!

There are lots of pressing problems which need solving now – and, as our induction period flies by, the new Committees are already getting stuck into those challenges. We cannot and will not put that pressing business on hold in order to go and do some blue-sky thinking. But I would argue that it is in the interests of justice and fairness that we should raise our eyes from the day-to-day work and think about the long-term plan, too.

By way of example, Deputy Gollop quite rightly pointed out, at last week’s States Meeting, that it was wrong to talk about withholding funding from welfare reform in order to mitigate financial pressures, until the States has had a discussion about its priorities. There is sound evidence to show that the lower your income, the shorter your average life expectancy [large download]. Poverty, even the kind that we have in Guernsey, finishes lives off prematurely, and it robs people of good health much earlier than their wealthier counterparts. We have an immediate problem to fix: we need to deal with a disappointing tax take and an overstretched public sector budget. But without guiding principles (of the kind the P&R Plan should provide), we can too easily forget or dismiss the long-term consequences of short-term action. What is, in the long term, the most just and fair way of balancing the budget for all our population? How do we juggle the risks that come with any course of action? Are there some lines we simply cannot cross?

A “vision” is not, for me, a description of some static future utopia, which we will either succeed or fail to reach. I subscribe to Amartya Sen’s view (in The Idea of Justice) that “we have to think about how institutions should be set up here and now, to advance justice through enhancing the liberties and freedoms and wellbeing of people who live today and will be gone tomorrow.” I believe perfection is unattainable, and won’t waste my time chasing after it. But I believe the consistent application of fair and just principles to shape government decision-making will help to improve the lives of the people I’ve been elected to serve now, as well as safeguarding a brighter future for their children and beyond.

So what do I intend to bring to tomorrow’s workshop – our first conversation, as a States, about the plan that should guide our actions for the next four years?

A recognition (in case anyone doubts it) that a strong economy is important to achieving our social goals, and to securing a good future for the next generation.

A commitment to prioritising people who are disadvantaged (e.g. through poverty, social exclusion or stigma) or vulnerable (e.g. through poor health, age, or lack of capacity).

A focus on building trust and integration across society – if we are to be a world-leading community for health and happiness, we must, at heart, be a community. That depends on the quality of relationships between people – not only one’s trust in friends, but one’s confidence in strangers not to threaten, mistreat or take advantage.

A willingness to secure all our children every advantage possible. A good start in life; an education that will enable them to compete internationally for jobs, higher education, and other opportunities; a childhood which equips them with the skills and strengths they need for life.

An argument that all policies should seek to maximise health and minimise inequality.

A recognition that individual liberty is an important part of the social contract in Guernsey: taxes are low, and people prefer to spend their own money to achieve what they want, rather than having substantial collective provision. There’s a tension, because people still want more than they’re paying for; but we’d be wrong to overlook the strong individualistic streak in the Guernsey mindset.

An acknowledgment that we are part of a connected world, and our external affairs, aid and environmental policies must reflect global priorities.

How all that gels or jars with the principles that my fellow States Members will bring to the conversation remains to be seen. How much of it could be reflected in our “vision”, as opposed to the subsequent development of a framework of goals and priorities, I don’t know. (I am more interested in the journey than the destination, to borrow a cliché, and I think my commitments here probably reflect that.) If I had to cling on to just one principle, and fight for it above all else, it would be the commitment to prioritising islanders who are disadvantaged and/or vulnerable – but, of course, that should also be done in the context of securing the welfare and long-term prospects of the whole island community.

This States, perhaps more than any of its predecessors, is going to have to make unpleasant trade-offs. Last week’s financial update made that quite clear. To what extent will we trade off people’s individual freedom (by raising taxes) against their welfare and wellbeing (by cutting services)? Within the resources we allow ourselves, to what extent will we prioritise one policy area against another, or one group of islanders against another?

The Policy & Resources Plan, if we are successful, should give us some principles to help guide those trade-offs. But it won’t be perfect. The “impossibility of defining a comprehensive utility function or decision-making mechanism that can satisfactorily reconcile the competing claims of different interests for resources across the whole public sector” (source) means that prioritisation and resource allocation by governments will always be an inexact science – a political choice, if you like. We can make those choices based on best evidence about the likely outcomes of our actions, and clearly-agreed principles about which outcomes we should value most (that is, the P&R Plan), but we’re never going to get it quite right.

Still, without a plan, we’ll just be moving from one short-term decision to the next. We won’t necessarily see the whole picture, or make decisions that are consistent with each other from one month to the next. We won’t be able to give the public or our partners beyond the States much clarity about our intentions, or give them something they can engage with, challenge, inform and work with. Much bigger jurisdictions than us, with many more researchers and policy officers to assist them, still struggle to produce meaningful long-term plans. We shouldn’t raise expectations too high, or spend too long trying to get ours to be perfect – it won’t be. But an agreed statement of aims, if we can achieve it, is a good place to start for sensible, joined-up government decision-making, and productive public engagement.

Tomorrow is only the first workshop on the Policy & Resources Plan, with at least one more to follow. Once that’s done, there will need to be some time for making sense of everything, and pulling it together into a coherent plan. I don’t know if there will need to be further workshops after that. I’m happy to share my reflections before the process starts, but it’ll be in the hands of the Policy & Resources Committee (who are leading this process) to update islanders on the outcomes of our work, once they are in a position to do so. I’m confident they’ll do so as soon as they are able.

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