Handing power to cities could help government make better policy

Research scientists prepare a batch of Malaria vaccine in 2007. Image: Getty.

How do good ideas become reality? Solutions to complex problems do not come quickly. It takes an average of 10 years to take a vaccine from pre-clinical study to implementation, without counting years of basic research. Malaria, discovered in 1880, still has no effective vaccine. 

Political solutions are just as unpredictable. Fourteen years after the discovery of the Ozone Hole, the Montreal Protocol came into force to ban CFCs – yet, the government thinks it could take over 50 years to tackle air pollution by phasing out diesel cars. Many of the UK’s most endemic problems like flat-lining productivity seem destined to plague us for eternity. 

Solutions also unravel quickly, it took New Labour five years to reduce the number of rough-sleepers in England from 2,000 to under 500, but only six years for the Tories to let it shoot up to 4000 again.

A timeline of vaccine development. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

It is no wonder good policy is rare and slow. Policy need political and public buy-in, sustainable financing, monitoring and tweaking, and flexibility to adapt to changing environments and technology. 

There are places that appear to do policy better. Scandinavia balance a progressive welfare state with high taxation and public confidence. Likewise New Zealand, despite having one of the shortest democratic cycles in the developed world, manages to far exceed the living standards and prosperity of many western countries. What links them?

  • Population: Sweden has a population just shy of 10m. None of the other Scandinavian countries, nor New Zealand, top 5.6m. Fewer people makes it easier to put policies in place. They require less administration, less resource and shorter consultation periods.
  • Culture: Largely they are culturally homogeneous. Many studies show people feel more comfortable with state intervention, or redistribution, that helps people like them. New Zealand’s recognition of their bi-culture has a similar basis. 
  • Strong Executives: The New Zealand treasury maintains a core focus on living standards, providing checks and balances on a short-term political cycle that still allows for long-term prosperity growth. It’s something that evolves independent of National or Labour governments, recently bringing measures of wellbeing into their policy analysis. 

So can the UK replicate Finland’s start-up culture, or Sweden’s gender equality? How can Spain learn from Ireland’s reduction in unemployment, or Italy from Iceland’s banking recovery?

The answer lies in cities. Testing policy on their smaller populations, or areas can replicate the agility of smaller innovative countries. Testing also helps mitigate mistakes. Failure is magnified when policy is centralised and at scale. If cities or regions can prove policies work they can also act as a brake for those that don’t.

Take Universal Basic Income. In January 2017, 10 per cent of the Finnish unemployed population were contacted by their national welfare body to take part in a study on how a flat universal payment over traditional welfare payments affects job incentives. It’s telling that the study designers are worried about the small sample size, and statistical robustness not media reactions. Similar studies on different populations are underway in Utrecht and Kenya:  why couldn’t one by done in Edinburgh or Belfast?

The graduated process of pilots means governments can overcome the stumbling blocks of policymaking, be transparent about both the upsides and downsides of new policies, and give civil society or businesses opportunity to prepare for them. Matthew Taylor has spoken of how important this will be for any progress towards a Universal Basic Income in the UK.


Piloting will mean being willing to say when things don’t work. Universal credit was rightly trailed in London Boroughs like Hounslow, before nationwide roll-out – but evidence showed it led to food shortages and evictions. Instead of learning where the policy was failing, the Conservatives doubled down and centralised further. 

Cities will need more power to help the rest of the country. If London could model the effects of changing council tax boundaries, or new taxes on undeveloped land, many more could benefit from the evidence. But City Hall will need to be aware of the local dynamics behind outcomes. Lessons learnt in Chiswick might not apply in Chester: establishing the causes of success of failure will be vital. 

Testing policies in smaller areas also needs an effective mechanism over the top for sharing and spreading ideas. I’ve argued before how a more federal UK could help this. Long-delays to roll out ideas to other towns and cities could cause resentment and increase regional inequality.

Similarly good policy should flow as easily in countries as between them. Fora like the OECD have a role here, as do the C40. Networks of think-tanks and political grouping are also important but need greater involvement from those in power and not just activists or oppositions.

Pilots cannot be used as an excuse for those above the city level not to make decisions. Endlessly delaying roll-outs for more studies is a stalling mechanism that helps no-one. Access to 5G technology — now as important a service as water or gas — for example cannot be left to cities alone.

As well as their size cities have bountiful qualities to be at the forefront of policy research.

  • World-class Universities: Policies, like vaccine research also needs underlying basic research on problems to inform strategies further down the line. This means greater government-academic collaboration as policymakers have always championed between universities and industry.
  • Cultural Diversity: Policy development tends to be dominated by one style of thinking. Although it is improving, think-tankers, civil servants and political staffers tend to come from similar backgrounds and career paths. More artists, designers or scientists in policy-making could improve the willingness to test, learn, tweak and re-test: prototypes and beta versions just don’t appear in politics. Cities are full of innovators. 
  • Tech-Savvy: Policy testing gets harder as individuals become more and more connected. How do you isolate a section of the internet or the Internet of Things? The challenge is that it also becomes increasingly important, the use of AI in public services, driverless vehicles, and other emerging technologies will all need to be assessed rigorously and designed with pubic confidence and engagement at the heart of them. The concentration of knowledge in cities make them the perfect place to test digital tech for the rest of the country. 

Even in a world as changeable as 2017 there is still room in cities for experimentation. 

 
 
 
 

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City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.