Posts Tagged 'Government policy'

Policy & Politics: Rethinking the role of the state

The newly elected Coalition government has announced an eye-watering austerity budget, with more detail of cuts to come. Similar moves are being made by governments across the developed world. Alongside this fiscal retrenchment the Coalition wants to initiate a debate about the role of the state. Are public sector activities better located in the private or third sectors? We will have to wait to see quite what this means in practice. Will the state disengage completely from whole areas of activity? Or is it a question of pushing provision out of the public sector, with government continuing to fund services and exert strong regulatory control?

Such a rethink could present opportunities for third sector organisations. But it can also present significant challenges. Ann Nevile’s forthcoming paper in Policy & Politics provides a timely reminder of the potential tensions between output legitimacy – value for money services – and normative legitimacy – values and community connectedness – that government seeks from third sector providers. Her research reaffirms that the most important strategy for maintaining normative legitimacy is retaining a mixed funding base, even though the transaction costs associated with doing so are considerable. This strategy also helps maintain organisational flexibility and innovation.

We are only just beginning what could turn out to be a significant transformation of the welfare mix. Recognising the complex competing pressures and accountabilities facing third sector organisations will be a vital part of the debate.

Nevile, A. (2010) Drifting or holding firm? Public funding and the values of third sector organisations, Policy & Politics, advanced access.

Alex Marsh, Management Board, Policy & Politics

Professor Nutt, the Home Secretary and drug control

The recent furore over the sacking of Professor David Nutt by the Home Secretary started because Professor Nutt said certain legal drugs, alcohol particularly, were more harmful than certain illegal ones. It ended as a debate about the role of scientific advisors, where the Home Secretary thought it no business of Government scientific advisors to promote policy. In contrast Professor Nutt thought it his duty to draw attention to certain scientific anomalies.

In their way both were right. Professor Nutt wants to classify drugs according to harms, placing them on a scale and claiming this is a scientific question. Not surprisingly he concluded that a drug such as ecstasy was less harmful than alcohol, and equally surprisingly the Home Secretary thought this undermined Government policy. Professor Nutt was right, or rather he was only partly right. For harm is also a moral term; to ask what is a harm is to ask what makes that action harmful. And the Home Secretary is also partly right when he says this is more than a scientific question, it is also a moral/political one.

Yet both avoid the more basic question. What criteria should be used to decide which drugs should be controlled in the first place? Placing drugs on a continuum, from say, `unharmful` to `very harmful` does not solve the problem. Decisions have to be made about a cut off point; i.e. at which point to control a substance, and which not? No-one seems to have considered this, yet here lays one of a small number of central question any rational drug policy must answer. To say, as Professor Nutt does, that ecstasy is less harmful than alcohol, is to imply current policy is irrational, but it still walks round that tricky question about whether the harm these drugs produce is sufficient to ban one of them, or both, or neither. And when that is answered there are other minefields ahead, such as who should be allowed to take those banned drugs, and what to do about those users who act illegally?

Sadly, squabbling over the role of scientific advisors gets us no nearer to the nub of the debate or helps answer these important questions. Yet someone, someday, scientific advisor or not, will have to tackle them, like it or not.

Philip Bean
Author of Legalising Drugs: Debates and Dilemmas to be published in January.

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