God in the System – Policy Process
The process of public policy formation can seem mysterious, but there is plenty of space for Christian influence.
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” Colossians 3:23
Sean Lock describes the process of public policy formulation as ‘changing the future.’ This is a bold, ambitious and slightly intimidating aim. But who better than Christians to have a clear vision of a future hope that is better than our present experience? It feels like we are on the cusp of a new political era with a Government with a strong majority to drive forward it’s agenda that will include significant constitutional change. We need now, more than ever, to be involved in imagining, persuading and influencing the shape of our nation’s future.
The process of public policy development, implementation and evaluation can seem mysterious, but as I teach it, I am often struck by how well it sits with my Christian values.
In this blog I begin to explore what it looks like to develop and deliver policy with a Christian faith as the fundamental underpinning.
As a Christian working in public policy, it might not always be possible or appropriate to be explicit about our faith because we are bound by civil service code to give neutral balanced advice and let Ministers take decisions; however, it is always possible to let our faith guide and shape the work that we do and prayerfully consider the actions that we take and the way we behave.
By definition, public policy problems are those that cannot be solved by the market. So, our motivation and success criteria become public value rather than profit. Public policy, at its best, is driven by the search for effective and positive outcomes and the desire to see society changed for the good. We are not driven by personal gain or shareholder profit, but by public good and benefit for the individual in need or wider society.
The process of developing policy often begins with a challenge that emanates from some fundamental wrong in society; a need that demands to be met, or a situation that requires improvement. From climate change, child poverty and prison reform, to health and housing, the biggest and most pressing issues facing our world find their home in public policy. And it is the civil servants, politicians and local officials that have to come up with the answers. Because these are the same issues that God’s heart aches for, they are issues that many Christians care deeply about. Being involved in public policy formation is a great opportunity to practically work out the desire that many Christians feel to seeing God’s kingdom come and working out their own personal calling to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8).
In the UK our policy process is increasingly based on evidence, experiments and testing. We are forced to ask the question ‘What works?’ and this is good news for the Church, as the God who created us and knows us, has designed some very effective solutions to many of the policy problems faced by our society. The Church can model these through community and social action. We have seen that in the case of prisoner rehabilitation some of the most effective interventions are by Christian charities – and so they have permission to continue their work and receive government funding. The role of faith, meditation and prayer in physical and mental wellbeing is well backed by evidence, and so is being actively promoted. Churches have taken over services from local authorities because they have proved that they can make more effective provision for older and vulnerable people in communities.
Increasingly our public policy process is also driven by an ethnographic approach, that puts the user at the centre of the design process. We are encouraged to be concerned about what real people need and understand how users interact with services. This sits well with our Christian understanding of how policy should be delivered. We are working for the benefit of the individual not the system or ourselves and to meet people where they are to recognise the humanity of the individual that the services are provided for.
One of the biggest challenges in public policy development is balancing the evidence with political demands. Speaking truth to power can be a challenge in a fast paced and high-pressured environment, where ‘delivery at all costs’ can feel like it trumps good sense or sound research. At times like these I’ve found my faith to be a real advantage. The sense of identity beyond my paid employment and the knowledge that I am working for God rather than any particular boss, often gave me the confidence to say the right thing even when it felt scary. And happily, I found that acting with impartiality, integrity and confidence was often rewarded within the system and it is possible to be known and valued for these traits.
We are privileged to live in a democracy with the freedom to express opinions both at the ballot box and within the system. I have worked with Labour, the Coalition and Conservative governments, and although their policies differ, within each I have found people who are genuinely motivated by public service and who want to see improvements in the lives of the people whom they serve.
As we work with and pray for those in positions of power let’s give thanks for the many opportunities there are for Christians to be involved in the process of development and delivery of public policy. Let’s ask for wisdom in knowing what the best solutions are and how to argue effectively for them. And let’s be brave and bold in our personal involvement – asking for courage to stand up and be the voice for those who might otherwise be forgotten.