Tobias Phibbs: Royal Society of Arts RSA  Defra is adopting a public money for public goods approach to supporting farming and the natural environment after Brexit.

‘While this approach is still in its infancy it has produced promising initiatives as well as difficult points of contention. The RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission suggests a public value framework would enhance those initiatives while resolving points of contention.

 Read a longer, more detailed piece on our understanding of public value.

There is much that is welcome in Defra’s public goods approach. So long as at is sufficiently resourced, shifting subsidies away from the area of land that is farmed to the delivery of public goods paves the way for incentivising better management of soils and water, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other externalities, as well as leading to public benefits such as improved animal welfare and healthier diets.

Yet it has its limitations and frailties too. Public good is a technical term with an established meaning. As a consequence, debate is liable to get bogged down in technical disputes about what constitutes a non-excludable and non-rival public good. Farming and land management produce many valuable outcomes that would fail to meet these criteria. It is also vulnerable to political interference. A new minister with a different agenda could whittle down the definition of public goods.

It also, and more importantly, focuses debate narrowly on the replacement of the Common Agricultural Policy. The future of agriculture depends on a great deal more than just direct subsidies, which constitute a fraction of the overall resource flowing through our food and farming systems and the wider countryside.

The public value framework

We have proposed instead using a public value framework to bring together all the resources flowing through food, farming and the countryside to deliver things like soil fertility, as well as sustainable farming, healthy diets and a flourishing countryside. It avoids unnecessary debate about the definition of public goods and would be embedded across government to give it expanded capability and greater political robustness. It also provides a framework within which we can understand the role of private and third sector money and social capital and consider how to align these substantial resources to deliver public value.

The concept of public value dates back over two decades to Harvard economist Mark Moore’s case for a change in the role of public bodies. He argued that they should move away from being vehicles for the bureaucratic enacting of a legislative mandate, and instead take on a wider social role. Rather than treating policy and funding streams in silos, a public value framework considers the whole resource flowing through a system and how best to coordinate it to deliver public value.

The Barber Review, published last year, extends the idea of public value from the public body to public spending. It introduces a public value framework for the Treasury to assess the public value of spending programmes through judging four ‘pillars’: the clarity and ambitiousness of a given goal, as well as the progress that has been made towards it; how effective the programme is at managing inputs (forecasting, benchmarking, etc.); the level of citizen engagement (how legitimate it is seen to be as a use of taxpayer money, the level of user participation, and engagement from key stakeholders); and the extent to which it develops system capacity as a whole (increasing levels of innovation, workforce capacity, work across organisational boundaries, etc.).

From the perspective of the FFCC, this review is a useful starting point but it too has its limitations. It is confined to assessing government decision-making and its overwhelming focus is on improving productivity, at the expense of wider social goals.’ 

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