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#11: Wicked problems and the need for institutional reform

May 21, 2024 #How to
#11: Wicked problems and the need for institutional reform
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This interview with Emma Pinchbeck is part of the Getting Policy Unstuck series. Emma is the Chief Executive of Energy UK, a position that she has held since July 2020. Previously, she served as Deputy CEO of the trade body Renewable UK, and Head of Climate Change at WWF-UK.

Do not assume people know what the plan is when it comes to big changes, explain it. For example, we have just been through a raging energy crisis where the decision to effectively ban onshore wind from the UK in 2015 added hundreds of pounds to the average bill. That’s because it is a cheap form of power, and the more domestic cheap power we have the less reliant we are on gas imports. If you are in business and you look at the numbers, it is baffling why the government hasn’t moved to build significantly more onshore wind. But as with every form of infrastructure, if the public feels it is being done to them, it can get quite messy at local levels and people fight it through the planning system.

You have to understand the politics of your policy area, and that right-left feeling. If you are regulating or prescribing, it feels like you are removing individual choice for some folk. It is flipped for others, where if you are using the market and pricing signals and there is no  ‘strategic state plan’, then it is not enough. You have to find a way of explaining why this is beneficial for everyone: you’ve got to make your numbers and spreadsheet live for people in their everyday lives.

You have to properly engage with local people about change. How can we all benefit from this infrastructure? Why are we doing it? Be thoughtful about that conversation. At the very beginning of the energy transition it was not done in that way because we were used to building a very few, very large assets at the end of a system and no-one saw them. Whereas now the assets are distributed everywhere, and everyone sees them. So, have those conversations early and make them matter. Preferably make them tangible with benefits.

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The geeky thing that I’m really interested in is institution reform. The glib example is to think about energy policy and net zero. At the moment we have a single department in the UK responsible for that. It is great that we’ve got a dedicated department and dedicated civil servants. But if you think about the energy transition, it involves the Department for Transport because it is about mobility choices and public transport systems. It is also the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has some say over planning and the environmental protections on building projects. It is the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities because this is infrastructure at a local level. It is the Department for Education, because your local school has solar PV on the roof. And then it is the Treasury because this is the economic project of the 21st century. 

How do you drive that change across multiple departments? Should there be a post in the Cabinet Office? Do we need a delivery body for this? Should we give more to the private sector and do more of it through competition? We have a new future system operator coming in which will help plan the network and some of the markets to deliver the grid. How do all of these bodies and powers interrelate? And what is the best system given the scale of the transformation that we are involved in?

You get policy unstuck by seeing the issue from lots of different points of view. You work out where the absolutes are, and where the shades of grey are, and you learn what the evidence is for each of those policy positions. If I were talking to someone from the left, I might say ‘Given the constraints on public finances and how much you think needs to be done across the economy, in the NHS, and the impacts of the pandemic in transport infrastructure where we need more trains and more and rural buses… there is a need for a lot more investment. We are also in a cost of living crisis where people are really struggling. We’ve got record numbers of people bouncing their direct debits in energy. If you know all of that and you also know that the private sector is willing to put up the money, then you have to even it out by allowing the private sector to do their bit of the transition, which is in their interests. That means using capitalism effectively. Do it in partnership with the government, constrain it if you want, but use the innovation, the business models, the risk appetite of the private sector and get some of this stuff done.’

This is what the science says ‘so tough’. I loved the absolute conviction of working in an NGO. Your one job is to look at the science, represent really smart people and go to the government and be like ‘this is what the science says so tough’. NGOs have become a lot more sophisticated in the arguments they make on the energy transition. There’s a shrewd ‘this is where there are likely to be political obstacles, and that is what the science says, so you should probably do this.’

You make coalitions work through a very clear set of principles. We are very clear at Energy UK about the set of principles that we work to, one of them being the energy transition. No one joins Energy UK unless they are very clear about those things and if we have a policy disagreement, we assess it against those previously agreed set of policy positions. Is this going to aid us in delivering that? Someone said really good trade bodies are a step ahead of their members. That is where we try to be.

Parting thoughts…

The nice thing about being in this job is you are in the middle of so much happening all the time. You get to question yourself and reevaluate things and meet interesting people all the time. There is obviously a stressor in that I have two very small children and a busy life. But it is such a massive privilege that 70% of the time the busyness is a good thing rather than something that is ruining my life. But, if you ask my husband, he would say ‘Kindly, could you make sure she stays off Twitter.’

Explore the series

Getting policy unstuck
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