By Civil Service World

13 Mar 2015

Journalist, doctor and academic Ben Goldacre - author of the acclaimed books Bad Science and Bad Pharma - tells CSW what works and what doesn't in the civil service

In your experience, what are the biggest strengths and weaknesses of our civil service?
There is no doubt that everyone – at the level I’ve had contact – is very smart. But I do worry about the celebration of people being moved around. Being a generalist is great, but institutional memory gets lost, and depth of knowledge can get you a long way when trying to solve complex problems. 

In your opinion, how could partnership working between government and the medical profession be improved?
Most clinicians have very little contact with management or policy makers, beyond unread circular emails. I do wonder if some kind of “engagement” project might be useful. I suspect that’s already been tried, and inevitably only captures a minority of clinicians already interested. 

What was the most inspiring government project that you’ve been involved in, and why?
Doing an external review for the Department for Education on how to get more evidence and randomised trials in the education field. It was really interesting to work closely with so many people from different parts of an ecosystem. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it since – it’s changed the way I work in various sectors. I hope I gave good service in return.

Tell us an anecdote that reveals something about government – or about wider views of it.
There is one identical anecdote I have heard in multiple forms from multiple researchers in multiple fields: “The department asked me for evidence on whether X works; then they ignored my thorough work, and instead used some superficially plausible back-of-the-envelope tailored calculation produced by someone widely regarded as a fruitcake in my field.”


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