Civil service policy professionals to be assessed on their use of evidence

Departments called on to be more open about policy challenges at five-year anniversary of the What Works Network

David Halpern, national What Works adviser, called on civil servants to be open about what they don't know. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Tamsin Rutter

30 Jan 2018

The civil service is to assess officials on their use of evidence, allowing them to gain formal accreditation in competencies that explicitly incorporate the way evidence is used in policymaking.

According to a report published yesterday, government has “codified the competencies required of policy professionals within the civil service” and Civil Service Learning has commissioned a set of learning and assessment modules rooted in these competencies.

“This assessment will enable current and future generations of civil servants to achieve formal accreditation in these competencies and be part of a profession in the deeper sense, with the effective use of evidence at its heart,” said the report, The What Works Network – Five Years On.

At an Institute for Government event yesterday, David Halpern, national What Works adviser, praised the successes of the movement to embed evidence into government policymaking, but he called on civil servants to be more open about what they don’t know and to ask for help from the private sector and academia.


Halpern, who also heads up the Behavioural Insights Team, said 10 departments so far had published “areas of research interest” – essentially detailing the policy challenges facing civil servants with the aim of engaging academics and researchers in solving problems. He called on other departments to do likewise.

He also commended GovTech, the Treasury’s recently launched fund for private sector innovations to public sector problems, but said he’d like to see other departments following suit.

The government report details progress made in the five years since the launch of the What Works Network – 10 centres that receive public money to collate and produce high-quality evidence in some policy areas.

It said the initiative had “gained increasing traction in the civil service”. There is a dedicated Cabinet Office team working across government to share findings from the centres, civil servants on the Future Leaders Scheme are being taught how to do randomised controlled trials, and a “Trial Advice Panel” has been set up to offer support to policy teams.

Halpern said the initiative was initially met with scepticism from some civil servants, but it now had top officials on board, in particular Sir Chris Wormald, permanent secretary at the Department of Health and head of the civil service policy profession, and ministers, especially in the Cabinet Office and the Treasury.

But he also said there were gaps in the remit of the What Works Network, notably in welfare policy, probation and the judiciary, and he said private providers should be doing more evaluations themselves.

In November the Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy set up the GovTech Catalyst team to oversee a £20m fund to help private tech companies innovate fixes to public sector challenges.

Halpern called on other government departments to set up their own, similar innovation funds.

Also speaking at the IfG, deputy director of public spending at the Treasury Catherine Connolly outlined some other recent changes in government aimed at improving the use of evidence in policymaking.

She pointed to Sir Michael Barber’s Public Value Review, which called for government policies and programmes to adhere to four pillars: pursuing goals, managing inputs, engaging citizens, and developing system capacity.

These recommendations have been accepted, and a new “public value framework” will be piloted by departments in their service delivery over the next few years, drawing on the expertise of the What Works Centres, Connolly said.

She also said the Green Book – Treasury’s guidance for public sector bodies on how to appraise proposals before committing funds to a policy – was being updated to ensure evaluation and monitoring are embedded from the beginning of a project.

Connolly called for increased interest from ministers in the initiative, and their support in ensuring all policies are based on high quality evidence. “I would particularly like to see ministers using this information… ministers regularly asking for it, sending things back when they don’t get it,” she said, adding that civil servants should be “very clear – this must go in this submission”.

The What Works Centres have different levels of funding and areas of focus, and are funded by several government departments, the Big Lottery Fund and the Economic and Social Research Council – which funds seven out of the 10 centres.

Ruth Gibson, deputy director at the ESRC, told the audience at the IfG that the funder wants to find out “what works for What Works Centres”, and has launched an external review that is due to report in March.

The networks are strategically important for the ESRC, Gibson said, but there is “not necessarily a blank cheque” for investment. She called on the centres to demonstrate their effectiveness, and said the ESRC would be working alongside the Cabinet Office to help disseminate best practice across the network.

Sir Jeremy Heywood, head of the civil service said: “What Works is a quietly radical agenda that is materially increasing the supply of evidence available to decision-makers. I am delighted to see that the public sector is embracing it.”

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