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A unique time to observe policy 

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Ezekiel Ward

We are today seeing rapid policy reactions to a crisis, perhaps even faster than that in 2008. It is a sad yet quietly content time, tragic yet fascinating to watch. Political and business leaders alike are being tested on their grasp of detail and ability to drive through change. The only thing we are focused on is the crisis, yet implementation is a huge challenge. Why?


There are several structural challenges that hinder policy implementation. These include:

  • how we enforce change;

  • how we communicate; and

  • how we balance competing interests.


There are learnings we can glean about

  • ‘blanket’/one size fits all policies;

  • clear communication;

  • tensions between the law and necessity; and

  • mixing politics and policy.


It feels important that we take learnings. Such learnings can be in the public or private realms. Thinking them through already now allows us to refine our observations over the coming weeks.



Structural challenges

Leaders have had to get their hands dirty, with policy implementation coming up against the reality of the world. Below are a few questions and examples of how the real world makes policy implementation challenging.


How do you enforce your decisions? Can you give a simple instruction or does it need to be through positive encouragement and pointing to vast majority? Is there time for ‘nudging’ change?!


Lines of command aren’t always hierarchical, nor one-to-one. For example, a local subsidiary may have employees reporting to a different business unit. Or the Home Office may be implementing policies devised primarily by the Health Secretary. Coordination is tough, especially when time is tight. Stress and psychology play a far bigger role than many realise.


You are responsible for telling people about the changes that affect them, and sometimes you have to do this over and over again. We have received television, radio and social media announcements from the government, plenty of news and even a letter to every home from the Prime Minister.


Communication isn’t easy, even if you are lucky enough to know exactly who you’re targeting. Messages might not be getting through at all, or not at the time you intend. There can be language barriers or simply too much information all at once. There will be wilful misunderstandings.


Competing interests may be at play when implementing a particular policy. For example - when banks are trying to ensure they have enough security and sufficient risk management for loans under government schemes, there is probably nothing nefarious or ill-willed about that. There are legitimate interests on both sides that have to be bridged.


To take another example, organisers went ahead with large events like the Cheltenham festival and a Stereophonics concert attended by many thousands of people, even as the virus was known to be present and infectious. These maybe represented a balance of economic interests (or ignorance) against public health concerns; we will see much more chatter about these competing interests soon, in relation to ending lockdowns.


So, as you knew, the world is messy.




We are well advised to reserve judgment and any strong opinions until the facts are fully known. One particular tendency we must try to stop is that of making inaccurate comparisons, especially between countries. For now, let’s leave it at being challenging, and a situation where we have to pull together.


But what we can do already is try to glean some learnings on policy and implementation. It is an especially good time to do so, as we can watch over the coming weeks and months, then test and refine these learnings. Let’s take a look at a few:


Blanket policies / one size fits all

Blanket policies maybe suit a crisis more than business as usual. The lockdown is a good example – everybody, regardless of location, age, etc., has to stay inside for public health reasons, excepting only essential workers. This article is no comment on the suitability of lockdown or not, but what learnings we can take away from policy and apply in the future - under normal circumstances or other crises.


Senior leaders can be tempted by straight-forward policies that apply to everybody. They are usually easier to administrate and don’t require time-consuming discussions about exceptions. They can look strong and clear at first.


But they can be a nightmare at local level. Implementing what suits the average, or perhaps just a dominant part of the organisation, might not work for others. Their systems might not be suited to handling it. The policy may not make sense for one region, industry or group of people.


Shall we avoid blanket policies? Not necessarily. But they should be drafted with care and room for manoeuvre. When we’ve drafted codes of conduct, clients have to take high level positions that can be flexibly but fairly enforced.


For example, you can’t simply ban outright all gifts and hospitality - your credibility would be damaged if you later found out that the entire organisation was frequently giving out expensive tickets to sports events. But if you baked in some local responsibility like setting thresholds that suit a particular jurisdiction, you share the load, give responsibility to the organisation and probably gain better buy-in and outcomes. [As a side note, the code of conduct is in itself a risk-reaction and your choice of policies can be tailored and amended to suit exactly what is important to your organisation. So by their nature, they needn’t be ‘one size fits all’.]


Communicating clearly

The details matter. But when we rush through policies like in the past few weeks, some things inevitably fall between the cracks. Confusion can damage the credibility of the policies themselves – how we present them determines the level of support received.


In the UK there has been necessary progress on defining ‘essential work’ and on employment rights. There has been discussion of conflict between furloughing and areas like holiday entitlement and second jobs. In Scotland there was confusion on what business support would be available, as opposed to the position in England.


We should value the time we have for policy development and communication when we are not in a crisis. Take the time that’s needed to take in the many self-oriented and totally natural questions about policy implementation from the people and organisations affected.


Talk directly to people before you make a change. Get to know their data, views and feelings. That can guide the policy itself, and its implementation. But the act of talking it through can also make the policy more acceptable and easier to drive through. Take a one-on-one with the right people, and you’ll save yourself a great deal of work later on. Whenever I restructured my teams I used direct conversations to ensure I got it right. Nothing ever came as a shock when announcements were made, and adjustments had been made to ensure everybody was as happy as possible.


Tensions - necessity and the law

The law is having to react at pace in the current crisis, creating a feedback loop to policy development. Example: watch for relaxation of data protection, then watch for government policy stepping into the open ground.


This can teach us how large scale policies can have negative, unintended consequences later on. It can also teach us how to drive iterative change.


Several fundamental freedoms (think rights to assembly, liberty, movement and worship [in religious establishments]) were washed away in summary fashion when a lockdown was implemented, losing out in a contest with public health. This kind of large scale change doesn’t have to be either good or bad - it can simply be necessary. Leaders must ensure that it remains temporary.


Another tension and unintended consequence will come in the form of effective contact tracing, the method of establishing who may have been in direct contact with an infected person during a given time window using mobile phone data. Data protection will be an important part of this discussion. Can location and health data be handled within the rules? What sacrifices were made in South Korea in this regard? Is anonymisation really truly possible? Some European authorities are arguing that even four location points can be enough to identify an individual, which hardly seems constructive given the task we have ahead.


Perhaps the lesson for us is to be ready for our policies to change when inconsistencies appear, or change is rapid and necessary.


The law will also have to adapt to clean up some of the novel and unintended consequences that will be abundant. Take a court hearing that is delayed because counsel’s home internet connection isn’t working - where do the costs fall? What about an employee who is on sick leave, is furloughed and then becomes ill again?


As you’ll recall, the world is messy. Our policies must be designed flexibly to account for the niche situations that can be thrown at us.


Politics vs policy

Partisan behaviour has no place in policy design. Corporates especially need to be careful that their policies are guided by facts, not politics. Trusting experts is important, despite what you may have heard some politicians say in recent years.



What is coming

In the next few weeks we will see new and changed policies, and their renewed implementation. We can watch and perhaps test them for the above pitfalls.


We can look out for blanket policies (easing restrictions / repeat spikes in infections). We can look out for clear communications, and that temporary necessity is no excuse for permanence. Will politics play a role in fair access to testing, and will there be competing interests in easing restrictions, perhaps from industry?


And beyond all of that, Boris Johnson looks to have been profoundly affected by his personal experiences. Let’s see if that is the case.





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