How Damian McBride gave me an existential crisis. And how policy theory helped me recover.

I was preparing my talk for last week’s ‘WonkComms in the North’ event alongside reading Damian McBride’s hugely gripping – if depressing – book Power Trip.

For the hermits amongst you, McBride’s book is a booze-fuelled gallop through the dark arts of media manipulation, political backstabbing and Brownite micro-management over ten years. It traces McBride’s ascent to one of the most powerful positions in British politics and ends with his ignominious downfall in 2009.

It’s a fascinating read. But  – as James O’Malley points out on the Staggers – reveals some uncomfortable truths about our policymaking process. McBride describes in several places how important policies – from the petrol tax cut in 2000 to changes to vehicle excise duty the same year- were hastily cobbled together with scant regard for evidence or expert views, purely to serve a political purpose or keep a journalist happy. O’Malley describes this as ‘McBride’s war on evidence based policy’.

Interestingly, though McBride objects to calling it ‘a war’ and points out that he wasn’t the first to manipulate evidence in this way, ‘Mad Dog’ himself accepts this criticism as ‘reasonable’ in comments beneath O’Malley’s piece, and offers some further examples to back up the case.

So, in preparing my talk for research organisations and think tanks in the north about ‘influencing Westminster on a budget’, McBride’s book and O’Malley’s critique were at the front of my mind.

And here’s where the existential crisis came about. I started to question how effective evidence-led organisations could be if the real drivers of policy change are back-of-a-fag-packet fixes as described by McBride. How can small, cash-strapped think tanks, research organisations or academics have a hope of getting their analysis and proposals a fair hearing? Are earnest policy wonks just wasting their time in crafting well-researched policy ideas? And are those of us whose job it is to help communicate them trying to achieve the impossible?

Now, I’m not so naïve as to think that politics and opportunism don’t play a vital part in the policymaking process. But, as someone responsible for communicating evidence and policy proposals for a resolutely non-partisan think tank, McBride’s book did force me to ask questions about how agendas get set and how policies get made. So I reached for the bookshelves. And that’s where the policy theory comes in.

According to the US academic John Kingdon, agendas are set when three loosely connected streams come together to open up what he calls the policy ‘window’.

The first stream – the problem stream – is where problems get identified, either by new indicators or research, or by campaigns or a particular event. Lots of think tank and academic work falls into this stream – the Resolution Foundation’s work on framing the living standards crisis, for example – but so too do crises and events, like the repeated failings at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. Without a problem to solve, a policy is unlikely to go very far.

The second stream – the proposals stream – is where solutions to the problems get formed. This is clear think tank territory – wonks come up with hundreds of policy proposals each year – from redesigning contributory welfare to changing school league tables. Kingdon labels people seeking proposals as ‘policy entrepreneurs’.

The final stream – the politics stream – is where McBride’s shenanigans come in. This is when the political will exists to do something, or where it is opportunistic to act. Think tanks can also play a role in this stream, as Policy Exchange and its spin-off blue-collar Conservative group Renewal show.

So, the theory goes, when these streams converge a policy window opens up and the opportunity for change and influence emerges. A fascinating (and less depressing) part of the McBride book is his description of the scorecard process for deciding on Budget proposals. And this section does seem to bear out Kingdon’s theory: policies that make it to the top of the list are ones where a clear problem has been identified, a solution crafted and the political will exists to act.

Those of us communicating on behalf of policy entrepreneurs in think tanks should keep Kingdon’s theory in mind when seeking to release that killer analysis or well-crafted proposal onto the world. After all, what’s the point of a think tank if no policy window exists for its proposal? And if that’s not an existential crisis, then I don’t know what one is.

Leonora Merry is Head of Media and External Affairs at the Social Market Foundation

Catch up with slides and video clips from the WonkComms in the North event, which took place on 14 October at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in York

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3 comments on “How Damian McBride gave me an existential crisis. And how policy theory helped me recover.
  1. I’m a big subscriber of the McBride school of thought when it comes to policy suggestions, but accept that it might be depressingly reductive for researchers and policy experts.

    A good middle ground is making sure that at least some people in think tanks are always thinking with their ‘spad-hat’ on. Recommendations and policy suggestions should be passed through the same lens that any prospective government would pass them through – who are the winners and losers of this policy?, or put another way: how many votes does it win or lose?

    You might have the best policy suggestion in the world, but if it is a vote loser then it won’t go in the manifesto, and therefore it will never happen. If you’ve got an idea that solves a problem, doesn’t rub a political party’s ideology the wrong way, and also courts a key demographic they are looking to woo… then you’re on the road to a future policy win.


  2. […] our political overlords put by those who do think?   This exact problem was discussed in a post at WonkComms a few weeks back, when Leonora Merry, a PR at a think tank, discussed her “existential crisis” while […]

  3. […] a previous blog on this site may give me a clue. In October Leonora Merry brilliantly explored an occasion when academic policy theory seemed to play out in real-life […]

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