How government can work better with academia

Written by Tom Sasse on 5 June 2018 in Opinion
Opinion

External evidence and expertise is crucial to good policy making – a new report from the Institute for Government sets out how Whitehall can use it better

Photo: Flickr/ Angel Abril Ruiz

Civil servants must advise ministers on the basis of the best available evidence and expertise. This principle is enshrined in the Civil Service Code and at the core of how UK government works. But we spend too little time asking how – practically – we expect them to be able to do this.  

The reality of policy making is ‘messy’. It does not happen in distinct stages from finding evidence through to evaluation. Officials often have to respond to ministerial requests in a very short amount of time. They have to weigh up public attitudes, media pressure, interest groups, and so on – alongside what the experts might be saying.

In interviews in ten departments for our report on how government can work with academia, many policy officials told us these other pressures mean they often feel like they do not have time to talk to academics and other experts. When they do, they often find useful advice or relevant research hard to locate – which further puts them off.


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This is a waste. The UK has 30 of the top 200 universities in the world, with leading academics in virtually all disciplines. Academics offer knowledge, expertise and research that can help inform, design, improve, test and scrutinise government policy. Weak links between policy making and academia mean that too often valuable knowledge remains untapped.

Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, recently recognised this problem, expressing frustration that government does not make better use of academics. He called for Whitehall to do more to improve academic collaboration.

Fortunately, there are two simple steps Whitehall can take to get better at listening to the experts: clarify responsibility, and learn much more from what some departments already do well.

In many departments no one is clearly responsible for how officials engage with academics and the quality of evidence and expertise used in policy. Permanent secretaries have overall responsibility for this, but in practice they need to work with other senior officials. We found this coordination often does not happen. Junior officials are unclear about who is responsible for what.

Chief scientific advisers (CSAs) should be responsible for linking academics into departmental work. In some departments, such as Defra, this works well. Defra’s CSA sits at the head of a powerful system of academic committees and feeds expert advice into Defra’s senior team, with the support of a staff of 30. Elsewhere, part-time CSAs have a staff of one – and end up as marginal figures. And it is often unclear whether CSAs are responsible for working across disciplines – or just science and engineering.

Departmental heads of policy similarly often lack the resources to see how evidence and expertise is used across the department – and make it better. One thing that would help with this is greater transparency. The Department for International Development and the New Zealand Government have started using an evidence transparency framework, developed by the Institute for Government and Sense about Science, to assess policies internally. Others should follow suit.

Throughout our interviews we found lots of examples of great initiatives for using academics which are making real improvements to policy making. To take just three:

  • Defra is bringing in PhD students to give it cutting-edge advice on everything from air quality to upland farming practices;
  • the Cabinet Office is getting senior academics who are leaders in their fields to work part time with officials to develop key policies;
  • the Department for Education has created a pool of academic researchers that officials use to commission rapid evidence reviews;

These efforts – and many others we highlight – are making it easier for officials to use academic evidence and expertise well. But they are not being replicated. Departments are too slow to learn from one another. To make better use of academics, more collaboration within Whitehall would be a good place to start.

About the author

Tom Sasse is a researcher at the Institute for Government and co-author of the How government can work with academia report. He tweets @tom_sasse

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