Navigating the poly crisis: a call for strategic governance amidst global challenges

9 October 2023


Navigating the poly crisis: a call for strategic governance amidst global challenges

Reported by Victoria Price, CSaP Policy Intern (April-August, 2023)

Professor Nick Pearce calls for governments to adopt a more strategic approach in the face of the multiple interlocking crises of climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, inflation, and the war in Ukraine.

Speaking to CSaP's Policy Leaders Fellows, Nick Pearce (Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Bath) discussed the challenges posed by the "poly crisis" – an interconnected web of global challenges spanning economic, social, and ecological systems.

One response to the challenges was the concept of a mission-oriented government which calls for policy-shaping towards defined missions, such as achieving net-zero emissions or addressing grand societal challenges. Professor Pearce explained that advocates of this approach argue that the state should play a pivotal role not only in addressing market failures but also in shaping and creating markets, fostering systemic transformation.

Professor Pearce then delved into an alternative critique of mission-oriented government, questioning its applicability across different national contexts. He emphasised the importance of understanding the historical evolution and unique characteristics of national institutions, which shape and constrain policy options available to decision-makers. Professor Pearce highlighted the differences between liberal market economies like the UK and coordinated market economies like Germany. He further emphasised that these differences reflect variations in labour markets, finance sectors, vocational education, and training systems, and he stressed that policy applied in one country cannot simply be transferred to another.

“…every few years a government minister will say, we're going to have a better vocational training and education and apprenticeship system. And it's going to look much more like the Germans and every few years that fails. And it fails largely because of ignorance of the differences in our political-economic institutional contexts.”

In light of the poly crisis, Professor Pearce drew attention to President Joe Biden's agenda – so-called “Bidenomics”, which integrates policies addressing climate change, geopolitical conflict, domestic economic objectives, and social policy considerations. While recognising the unique characteristics of the US economy, Professor Pearce highlighted the importance of integrating different policy objectives within a strategic framework. He also acknowledged that national institutions are not set in stone and can undergo change through critical junctures or incremental evolution. He further suggested policy makers study the mechanisms behind institutional change and adapt their strategic approaches accordingly.

During the discussion after the seminar, participants discussed how policies enacted in response to crises may lead to long-term institutional deficiencies, as seen with the legacy of the NHS. They stressed the need for a holistic view of policy implementation, focusing on long-term goals and institution-building rather than ad-hoc solutions. Another participant brought up the challenge of formulating effective strategies that align vision, actions, and assumptions. They argued that politicians often present grand visions without adequate planning for implementation, resulting in short-term thinking and insufficient action.

The conversation then shifted to the role of the civil service in strategy development. The significance of skilled civil servants and the importance of producing trustworthy, evidence-based work to guide policy decisions was mentioned. Another participant stressed the importance of empowering civil servants to talk about and think long-term without being confined to short-term political goals. There was further discussion on the need for the civil service to support policy making within the opposition and prepare strategies to be presented to new ministers during a change of government.

At the end of the session, Professor Pearce proposed the revival of a strategic policy unit akin to the former Prime Minister's Strategy Unit. This unit would serve as a centre for strategic thinking, collaborating with government departments and aligning with the Treasury on critical choices. Professor Pearce argued that such a unit would help fill the gap in strategic capability within the government, enabling more effective response to the complex challenges of the poly crisis. As the UK faces multiple challenges in the coming years, Professor Pearce finalised his speech by expressing hope for the beginning of a new era of policy development.

Banner image by GR Stocks - Unsplash