‘The government is losing its memory’ says innovation think tank

The new report from Nesta the data science think tank struck a chord with me. I’ve lost count of the times in the last few years when I’ve sat in meetings with civil servants from various government departments debating a new policy idea, only to think ‘but we discussed this ten years ago’ or ‘you lost a tax case on that point a long time ago’. The Nesta report gives some views as to why there appears to be a loss of corporate memory and the danger that this poses to the development of government policy.

Nesta reflect that the volume of data means that silos of knowledge are created that don’t get passed on to the next generation of policy makers who then don’t learn from past mistakes. Equally this can mean they are unwilling to try out a new idea as it may require a lot of research, when in fact all of the preparatory work may be sitting on someone’s hard drive literally gathering dust, never to be put to good use and that the taxpayer has already paid for.

To summarise the recommendations of the report, the author Gavin Starks says there needs to be a total rethink of policy development that aims ‘to shorten the path between innovation and policy in a way that is repeatable and scalable’. With the ever-present downward pressure on headcount within government, technology must now be used in a much smarter ways.

My huge frustration too in recent years is the unwillingness to use the corporate memory of stakeholders. They can provide the continuity of expertise that isn’t possible now in government policy making, as barely has a policy maker grasped their brief than they are off to the next project. Stakeholders also understand the operational intricacies of implementing a new policy. Engaging with stakeholders early, and often, leads to good law making, good law-making leads to better implemented changes that in turn deliver a level playing field in compliance costs and ultimately can change behaviour and bring in more tax revenues. It’s to the detriment of UK plc that stakeholder engagement has in recent times become an afterthought. Too often policy and legislation are (partially) communicated after they have been designed rather than taking stakeholders on that journey. We’ve seen that in three key areas in the last year alone: the public sector off-payroll reforms, optional remuneration arrangements and termination payments. Three new, complex changes to the tax system with guidance that was late, insufficient, poorly signposted and portrayed a lack of understanding of how businesses physically organise themselves in order to pay people. The huge talent pool of tax professionals that I’m proud to have worked alongside in a minor supporting capacity are all willing to give up their time and energy to share their corporate memory and help policy makers unlock those silos of knowledge – we just need to be given the chance……