Review: Policy Hackathon with Douglas Alexander

On the 8th of October, the King’s Think Tank, in partnership with the Fabian International Policy Group, co-hosted a policy simulation evening with Douglas Alexander, the chair of UNICEF UK, and former Shadow Foreign Secretary.The event consisted in an interactive session during which the participants brainstormed in teams to conceive a policy proposal. The aim was to find ways to rejuvenate Cuttering, a fictional British town situated in the North East of England which voted heavily for Brexit. For the purposes of the simulation, participants acted as policy advisors in the Prime Minister’s Strategy and Policy Unit tasked with devising innovative proposals based on four key sectors: economy, transport, environment, and education.

The policy simulation brief also included a guiding economic strategy for the country: creating greater levels of equality and a genuine stakeholder economy; developing a system for universal lifelong learning to help create a jobs rich economy and a highly skilled and adaptable labour force; empowering devolved administrations, regions, and local areas to lead their economic development; and building a form of prosperity that is environmentally sustainable and carbon neutral by 2050. The groups presented their policy proposals to the floor, and a discussion ensued with the panellists.

The event was an excellent opportunity for students to put their academic knowledge into practice. For professionals, it provided an occasion to discover new thinking coming from a variety of backgrounds. The event was particularly topical: the issue of the rejuvenation of the British rust belt demands an answer in a post-Brexit referendum context. In this setting, policy-makers are encouraged to develop policies which are both grounded locally and transferrable over different cities.

The policy simulation indicated that the solution would likely be a multifaceted, long-term policy, which would focus primarily on easing the effects of de-industrialisation while preparing the town for the increasing challenges engendered by work automation. Participants proposed a set of different social policies to respond to these challenges. For example, one group proposed the idea of investing in data science centres in Cuttering to re-skill the population, thereby ensuring that the town would not be left behind in the digital revolution. This would involve teaching basic programming skills to primary school children as well as adults who have been out of work for an extended period of time. However, the outcome of the discussion ruled that too often the human component was overlooked at the expense of an exclusive focus on jobs and infrastructure. Douglas raised a salient point on the need to be sensitive to highly localised concerns about job security and how the narrative of technology as a silver bullet for economic problems could be interpreted as condescending and ultimately, backfire as a policy.

One approach could be to concentrate on citizens’ need to feel connected, respected and protected. The intention is to reconstruct a sense of community, allowing people to recover their dignity. The promotion of local historical heritage is a way to create dreams for residents, and a shared story brings interest to newcomers and visitors while bonding the local community around a collective past and future. The prospects of the people are at stake; to respect the inhabitants is to communicate and involve them in the policies at work. Finally, giving a sense of security about the future is imperative for the communities to rejuvenate their local life and economy. This approach relies on qualitative elements that demand consultation at a grassroots level to evaluate the success of the policies.

As it is visible in the policy proposal, the event proved particularly insightful regarding the conduct and impact of policy-making. In addition to teaching valuable skills, the panellists experience in the field provided valuable lessons for the new generations of policy-makers and students who want to make a change in society.

Adam Mouyal is final year student in War Studies at King’s College London. His research interests include critical international relations theory, French postmodernism, and identity politics.

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