The American poet Robert Frost is perhaps best known for The road less traveled, a poem about someone who stands where ‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood’ and ponders which to take. He realises he cannot ‘travel both and be one traveler’ and eventually takes the road less traveled. We can only assume he stuck to it.
Governments are often accused of doing the opposite: choosing a path only to turn back because it’s harder and steeper than they first imagined - and because they and the people they serve feel they aren’t moving fast enough or aren’t going in the right direction.
The pages of this magazine are bursting with suggestions from organisations who think they know what government ministers should do to make policy work better - in effect, 101 reasons why they’re on the wrong path and should turn back.
Think again, says one organisation, about your approach to local governance. Think again, says another, about enterprise policy in deprived areas. Think again about your strategy for getting people off incapacity benefit and into work.
And quite right too. When policy isn’t working ministers should listen (who they choose to listen to is another matter) and should think again.
But rather than constantly refining policy, the process can become a matter of chop and change, then change again, making things worse for the people on the ground who were just getting to grips with the old regime.
In regeneration complaints abound about lack of continuity, lack of time to make approaches work and lack of backing for projects that prove they can work. Standing on the shoulders of such complaints are reports showing how little has changed as a result of decades of regeneration policy.
So what’s going wrong? Are the wrong people being listened to or is it all a game in which tough talk and being seen to be taking action is more important than actually making a difference? Are politicians actually the worst people in the world to control regeneration policy and if they are, will the devolution agenda deliver?
After his son committed suicide, Robert Frost wrote to a friend saying, ‘I tried many ways and every single one of them was wrong.’ As the government reviews policy on local government, enterprise and neighbourhoods, let’s hope it doesn’t end up saying the same thing.
Susan Downer, assistant editor, New Start Online magazine