Improving civil service policy making with evidence-based processes and training

Nick Pearce, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research and member of the Institute for Policy Research Advisory Board, explores the skills and priorities needed for successful Whitehall policymaking

27 May 2015

During your time as an adviser to departments such as the Home Office and the Cabinet Office, did you see examples of evidence-based policy? 

When I first worked in Whitehall, in the late 1990s, the civil service was still in the foothills of using research to inform policy development. Some departments had long experience of monitoring and evaluating their programmes, while others were still flying largely blind. 

There has been significant progress since then, both in the development of policymaking and policy advice as a practice and area of specialist knowledge, and in the use of evidence to inform policy. But it is important to remember that politics can never be reduced to a technocratic exercise. It is shot through with competing claims, both normative and empirical, and it should be responsive to a wide range of voices. 

In recent years research and evidence have played more a role in the policymaking process. How important is this? 

The shift towards research based policy making is an important one. It has proceeded at a different pace according to the openness of different academic disciplines and institutions to public engagement, and to the receptiveness of government departments to what researchers have to say. But you can see it happening across Whitehall. 

The key thing now is to deepen and extend it, while both preserving the integrity of academic research and recognising that in a democracy, a number of factors must shape policy, not all of which will be drawn from the evidence marshalled by researchers.

As Whitehall aims to professionalise the policy making process, what areas should the government and Cabinet Office focus on?

The shift from a civil service that places a premium on generalist, well written policy advice to Ministers, to one that prizes the specific skills and knowledge of policy development is key. This involves the ability to understand and handle academic research findings, relevant empirical data and performance information; an ability to experiment, evaluate and then refine policy advice; a deep appreciation of politics and the practical wisdom necessary for effective political leadership; and knowledge and understanding of policy implementation, and the democratic context in which a policy will be taken forward. 

How important is it to have dedicated courses such as the Professional Doctorate in Policy Research and Practice for policy making in the 21st century?

Very important! A huge gulf opened up between academia and policymakers in the 1980s, which has only started to close in the last decade. Dedicated courses for policymakers, ensuring that academic research has impact, and enabling a revolving between universities and government, are really important.

Full details about the Professional Doctorate, including fees and how to apply can be found on our website: Anyone with any questions about the programme can email 

Share this page