11 June 2021

Beware of ‘Policy Intern Brain’ – the source of so many bad ideas

By Anya Martin

Imagine for a second that you are a policy intern. You’ve just graduated fresh-faced from university. You may have got involved with student politics, but for the most part you have little experience of politics or policymaking.

And now, on your first day in the job, you’ve got to produce content. The politician you’re interning for has asked you to identify effective and popular policy solutions to fix some challenging social issue. Or the chief executive in the charity you work for has a meeting with the local MP and wants a briefing on some policy matter, plus your recommendations for how to address it. 

What might said intern do? Undoubtedly they will Google it, and they will come across newspaper and industry media articles, think tank reports and social media debates on the matter.  

The result is that, on the basis of pure probability, they are likely to repeatedly encounter ideas that fit two criteria: they have a broad traction, which by and large means they have a simple and appealing narrative; and crucially, they have not been implemented already

There are many reasons that a policy might not have been implemented. They are not always good reasons. Many that have extremely strong support among experts in the field, such as carbon taxes to incentivise green energy and reduce carbon emissions, have not been implemented because they come up against the political reality that people don’t want to pay more for fossil fuels in the short term, and that for people on low incomes paying more really hurts.

But some policies are not implemented because they are simply not very good. The reason they don’t get beyond the realm of backbench politicians or Twitter debates is because they fall to pieces under more detailed inspection – and the more experienced politicians and civil servants who would implement them know this.

The world of housing policy is full of these kind of flimsy ideas. One example is the oft-mooted ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ tax, whereby once they have been granted planning permission, developers would face a charge to encourage them to build out the site quickly. Proponents hope this would tackle what they see as the root cause of our country’s woeful housing supply: developers sitting on permissions and drip-feeding homes in order to keep house prices artificially high.

On the fact of it, it’s a very appealing suggestion. We desperately need more homes to push prices down, so once the development has received planning permission, we want the homes as soon as possible. The ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ tax comes up time and time and time again – in manifestos, speeches, and policy papers – and has been doing so for decades.

The problem is proposals of this type have been assessed in detail repeatedly. And they have also been rejected repeatedly, because there is a real risk that they would actually reduce the supply of homes by making some proposed developments unviable – especially the more complicated brownfield sites. As far back as 2004 the Barker Review of Housing Supply suggested the same goal could be achieved simply by parcelling land into smaller sites, without the attached risks. In any case, none of this addresses the key problem that we simply don’t issue enough planning permissions in the first place: hence not getting enough homes.

Such ideas are everywhere. Another housing-related one that constantly does the rounds is that we can solve our housing problems by filling Britain’s empty homes. This line of thought goes that there are lots of empty homes, therefore we have enough homes and don’t need to build. They ignore that those homes are overwhelmingly in areas of low demand and low employment opportunity, occupied part-time for valid reasons, undergoing works, or empty because the owner is in hospital or care. In fact, the UK has some of the lowest levels of empty homes in Europe.

The problem is that our policy intern is likely to see the repeated endorsements of these ideas, but in the rush to churn out sets of recommendations, is unlikely to trawl through the more detailed analyses which would make them somewhat more circumspect about endorsing them.

So, latching onto the superficially appealing idea they were looking for, they shove it into the list of recommendations in their briefing or speech, and off it goes. And that briefing or speech ends up, one way or another, in the public sphere, where it goes on to influence the next policy intern or hapless backbencher who comes across it.

And hence we have ‘policy intern brain’: the long-term, cyclical return of superficially appealing policies that fall apart on closer inspection. 

This is not, of course, to assert that the endless return of bad policy proposals is the fault of poor policy interns. This process applies just as well to anyone who is approaching a policy challenge from a position of relative naivete and without much time to assess it. It’s almost a natural probabilistic result of an idea that’s not quite bad enough to be universally dismissed but not quite good enough to be implemented. 

In fact, some of the most common victims of this process are politicians themselves, especially those who are either coming into a new ministerial brief. The recent revival of the failed Starter Homes under the new banner of First Homes is a key example of that. Indeed, rather than ‘policy intern brain’, you could just as well call it ‘ministerial brain’.

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Anya Martin is a researcher and director of PricedOut, England’s campaign for housing affordability.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.