Haldane’s Dog – The Complexity of Government and the Lack of Spatial Awareness

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Rebecca Riley discusses how Andy Haldane's use of a dog analogy highlights one of the key issues with levelling up.

Andy Haldane spoke at the RSA on levelling up, and said “Whitehall has a resemblance to my dog, both have a lack of spatial awareness”. Departments don’t have a clear understanding of their footprint locally.

Never a more accurate sentence was spoken when it comes to how interventions land at the local level and the government’s own ability to understand its impact at the local level.

Haldane’s use of dogs as an analogy goes back to 2012 and his paper the Dog and the frisbee, where he highlights that simple rules are often the best approach to solving or managing complex problems. Complex solutions are often too slow, ineffective, or designed to deal with yesterday’s challenges.

“Catching a frisbee is difficult. Doing so successfully requires the catcher to weigh a complex array of physical and atmospheric factors, among them wind speed and frisbee rotation. Were a physicist to write down frisbee-catching as an optimal control problem, they would need to apply Newton’s Law of Gravity”.

Haldane goes on to say that despite this, catching frisbees is common, even dogs can do it. He highlights that the secret is keeping things simple. However, currently, we face crisis after crisis and the efforts to catch them have become more complex, intertwined, and difficult.

I have just ended a 3-year secondment to the West Midlands Combined Authority and one of the issues I observed was that policy responses developed at the national level, led to extensive complexity at the local level.

As Haldane highlights departments don’t understand how their intervention footprints land in Dudley, Darlington, or Doncaster. Places are expected to deliver activity with smaller resources and a reducing capacity. The public sector, like most sectors, is also suffering under the strain of post-pandemic churn as staff resign, either due to funding uncertainty or individuals deciding they need to change following the effects of lockdown. This is leaving a void in terms of catching that frisbee.

The Levelling Up White Paper was expected to clarify all this complexity, however, there are many outstanding issues which remain, many of which the Local Authorities, Combined Authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships are trying to tackle with partners. That said many places are left in limbo due to so much institutional change as a result of the White Paper, at a time when stability is needed. Recent work published by City-REDI points to the need for institutional stability and consistency to levelling up, the aim of the changes now, is to create less confusion in the long term. Still, in the short term, this impacts those throwing and catching the frisbee, destabilising their foundations.

Since the launch of the White Paper, we have also seen the government thrust into turmoil through a leadership race and the future of levelling up remains uncertain. Although both remaining candidates support the policy of levelling up, we have yet to see what that will become, and transition to, under new ministers.

To come back to Haldane’s dog, the work of City-REDI has consistently, irrelevant to the policy area, highlighted the capacity at a place level is under-invested in, that government is often placed blind, or doesn’t have a good understanding of the geography of the organisations who can make a difference.

City-REDI is currently undertaking work to review business cases and evaluations to try to understand local impacts, and understand the decision-making on place interventions, hopefully, that will help give us an idea if Haldane’s dog is in fact more spatially aware than Whitehall.

This blog was written by Rebecca Riley, Associate Professor for Enterprise, Engagement and Impact, City-REDI / WMREDI, University of Birmingham.

The opinions presented here belong to the author rather than the University of Birmingham.

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