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James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. 

You don’t have to be a hardcore Remain voter to worry about the transition period for leaving the EU and whether Britain is going to be ready in time. This site shares this concern. And a new poll by YouGov for LBC shows a quarter of leave voters are worried we’re going to be ready in time – helping produce an overall majority that say they’re concerned about our preparedness for the exit door.

One of the biggest worries is whether there is enough policy-making capacity in Government to think through the challenges facing the country and come up with solutions that won’t just help us get by, but thrive. Most departments don’t do policy in the way outsiders think. There are very, very few people in Whitehall dreaming up creative new ideas to solve problems; most staff tasked with policymaking are actually part of implementation teams. Policy tends to come from politicians and advisers – and often originally via outsiders like think tanks.

Arguably the most under-appreciated cause of Michael Gove’s success as a Minister is his willingness to co-opt experts and find a way to give them real power – not only to come up with ideas but get them implemented. He has done this in all three of his Departments and it is why he is able to make progress across so many fronts.

The scale of the challenge posed by Brexit is staggering. Given the fundamental lack of policy-making capacity in government, it looks likely that the Government will seek simply to replicate existing, EU-derived legislation. This will help us “get through” the logistical trauma of exiting. While depressing to those of us that hoped (and hope) Brexit might lead to a national revival, it’s not an unreasonable approach.

But government departments aren’t doing enough themselves proactively to expand their policy-making capacity. While there are always informal working groups that liaise with external experts from the business world, for example, this process doesn’t go nearly far enough. So here are just a few of the ways that I have seen work and that Government should be adopting more broadly:

  • Make external experts non-exec directors within departments, then give them proper access to decision-makers, encourage them to ask lots of questions, and allocate them an area you want them to sort out.
  • Ask people who are writing reviews for you to embed themselves in the department, and when they’re done give them at least a year to oversee implementation of the review in government.
  • Make sure think tanks know what areas you need help with. They want to produce work that’s relevant.
  • Hire lots of policy advisers. If you have an extended Ministerial team, expand it; if not, set one up.
  • There is no reason why Number Ten can’t use experts in the way that Dieter Helm is currenty being used by Defra. No 10 can call on almost anybody in the country and they will gladly give their time and brain. This should be done much more widely.

There is a tendency to think about capacity purely in terms of “boots on the ground”. Will there be enough customs officers? Will there be enough people to process payments in a particular area? Logistical capacity is vital. But the Government should also be worrying about brain power and whether there is enough of it. The Government needs more people actually thinking on its behalf.

80 comments for: James Frayne: May needs more brains in Whitehall as well as boots on the ground to make Brexit work

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