How do ministers go about seeking advice from outside Whitehall? The simple answer is we don’t know

Using external advice is essential for good policymaking – but there seems to be little or no evaluation of the advice that is chosen. It is high time for some independent analysis, says Dr Ruth Levitt of King’s College London

By Dr Ruth Levitt

07 Mar 2016

There was a big fuss in 2009 when the home secretary, Alan Johnson, sacked Professor David Nutt, chairman of the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), for speaking out against ministers’ wish to reclassify cannabis as a more harmful drug. Until then, most people would not even have been aware that the ACMD existed, let alone that it was just one of scores of official committees, experts and others who advise ministers all the time. 

Yet behind the scenes there is a huge flow of advice coming into the government day by day. Much of it arrives at ministers’ request, although numerous pressure groups, lobbyists and investigative journalists also push their views on to ministers uninvited. Using external advice is essential, given that it is impossible for politicians or civil servants to know everything relevant to every policy decision they want to make. And there are very many experts outside government – including academics, business and public sector professionals, parliamentarians, and ordinary citizens too – who have important experience, evidence and ideas to offer. 

Nevertheless, two things are rather odd about these arrangements. First, it is not clear why one source of advice is often preferred over another. For example, is a large statutory committee like ACMD, which has 25 members and the status of a non-departmental public body, the most effective way for ministers to obtain advice regarding illegal drugs? In contrast, a former MP and Cabinet minister, Alan Milburn, was appointed to advise governments on the vast topic of social mobility; is that the best method for tackling that issue? For the current proposed changes to the planning system to increase affordable housing among other things, DCLG decided to hold a public consultation open to “all interested parties”. What are the merits of doing so? Would another approach be more or less helpful? 

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We need to ask what drives ministers’ and departments’ choices, case by case. Is it just random, or is it carefully thought through? Could there be a robust underlying logic? Are they consciously thinking about their budgets and the cost-effectiveness of the advice and its suitability for achieving longer-term policy outcomes? It may well be that certain types of policy decision definitely require a specific method of obtaining input from outside, which only certain types of advisers can provide. However, at the moment it is impossible to judge what criteria – if any – a minister or department uses when deciding to tap into external advice.

Second, there seems to be little or no evaluation of the advice that was chosen, whatever the source. It is not therefore possible for ministers or departments or “all interested parties” to say whether the way the advice was obtained and used enabled the minister to arrive at the most suitable, timely, authoritative, evidence-based, politically acceptable decision, which delivered optimal value for money.

How can we know, for example, if the Leveson Inquiry (2011-12) into phone hacking by the press was “effective” or “successful” in securing the changes it was meant to achieve, according to the rationale the government gave when it set it up? Or take another example: whenever a parliamentary select committee publishes a report about a particular policy issue and urges government ministers to change or improve something, can anyone tell later what difference that advice actually made to subsequent policy decisions? (See the Justice case study below.) Are lessons being learned by government and advisers so that next time everyone can organise things to secure a much better fit between advice and sound policy? 

It also sometimes happens that ministers ignore the advice they have commissioned. They may not always own up to this or give reasons; or they may delay responding to advice as a way of pretending they are still actively considering it. What is really going on in such cases? Was the advice faulty, was it badly timed politically, or what other factors were in play? And hence what can be learned that will make things more cost-efficient in future?

I have long been interested in investigating these matters, to understand why government transparency and public accountability is often so frail, despite repeated claims to embrace openness and to learn. I undertake research that tries to provide practical ways of getting policymakers to be more effective. Fifteen years ago, shifting policymaking into a more “evidence-based” activity was all the rage. Nowadays the Cabinet Office backs a government-wide initiative called “What Works”, which it claims “supports government to make policy in a fundamentally different way: deliberately testing variations in approach, vigorously evaluating, and stopping things that don’t work”. 

To find out how reliable such a claim is, I am now looking into the whole question of how external advice is used by ministers and departments, in a new research project based at King’s College London. Working with colleagues, I’m seeking to uncover the facts and opinions that reveal what is going on when external advice is brought to bear on policy issues. We will carry out five original case studies and in parallel we will convene a series of round table discussions with politicians, civil servants, advisers and commentators, and produce a stream of written communications online.

It is high time for an independent analysis of the factors that influence ministers taking advice on policy, to discover where and how improvements can be made that will increase governments’ transparency and accountability. The project is ready to start; the scale, scope and duration depend on the level of engagement and funding that we can secure.

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