Departments urged to be more transparent on policy advice to avoid "stifling" debate

Report by former Court of Appeal judge Sir Stephen Sedley warns that departments are not keeping track of policy research – and says public debate risks being undermined by suppression of findings

By Matt Foster

02 Jun 2016

The government has been urged to set up a new central database of all external policy advice it commissions, in order to stop proper public debate being "stifled".

A new report written by former Court of Appeal judge Sir Stephen Sedley for the charity Sense About Science finds that the UK government spends more than £2bn a year on research designed "to guide, develop, modify and monitor" policy.

But Sedley – who spoke to civil servants, politicians and researchers for his inquiry – points out that taxpayer-funded research is "not always published in sufficient time for informed public discussion" – often because departments are concerned that to do so could be politically embarrassing.

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Sedley says delaying the publication of such research "simply to avoid political embarrassment" is not "ethically acceptable", and he warns that drawing up and announcing policy decisions before the media and public are able to scrutinise the expert advice ministers have based it on can result in debate being "handicapped or stifled".

"There is no recent evidence of the indefinite suppression of research," Sedley's report says. 

"However, there is good evidence that research publication does get delayed. The reasons, in addition to political concerns about the timing of publication, may include uncertainty about peer review, about what counts  as government research, and about what should be published in relation to policy announcements.

"Yet delayed publication can be as damaging as indefinite suppression because it deprives parliamentarians, the media, NGOs and others of the timely access they need in order to be able to engage with policy formation in the light of contemporaneous evidence."

"Ghost research"

While Sedley acknowledges that there will "always be cases in which government is doubtful about or dissatisfied with the quality" of research it has commissioned, he argues that this should not justify withholding its publication, pointing out that departments should feel able to set out their "grounds of doubt or disagreement" with such advice when they do make it public.

The review focuses in particular on what Sedley calls the "discrete high-level studies" commissioned by departments from external organisations, such as universities and NGOs.

Sedley finds that the quality of departmental record-keeping on such research "varies enormously" with some, including the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Transport giving online access to all ongoing research, while others, such as Communities and Local Government, list only the studies that they have chosen to publish.

And he says that the many government departments do not keep track of all the research they have commissioned, sometimes leading to needless duplication and "ghost research" which officials can no longer get hold of.

"Submissions to this inquiry also raised concerns about effects on the efficiency of government," the report says.

"For example some departments, unsure about work that has been done in the past, have to spend significant time and money investigating their own research history before undertaking new projects. There is also little opportunity for departments to learn from each other’s research because there are no standardised records of what has taken place."

Sedley interviewed a number of senior figures on the record for his report, including chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies. Davies said she believed that there were now better systems in place for research publication than had been the case a decade ago, with "clearer guidance and publication frameworks" meaning that delays were no longer "a major problem".

But Ed Humpherson, head of assessment at the UK Statistics Authority, said it was "unacceptable" for policy claims to be made "without everyone having access to the analysis behind them" and said UKSA still had to press for publication of evidence.

"There is little opportunity for departments to learn from each other’s research because there are no standardised records of what has taken place" – Sir Stephen Sedley

"That we have to do this repeatedly means that the principles of prompt publication found in codes governing research might not be that strongly embedded," he told the inquiry.

"Clear commitment"

To try and improve oversight of government-commissioned research, Sedley's report recommends the setting up of a single, standardised central register of all studies being carried out on behalf of departments, as well as greater clarity on the rules governing publication.

There should also, he argues, be a "clear commitment to prompt publication" in all government research contracts, and "routine publication" of research that departments have considered in policy formulation as well as reasons for disagreement with that advice where appropriate.

Officials tasked with communicating policy decisions should also be given training in the principles of research, he adds.

"Half-truth or belief are not just potentially very wasteful but dangerous" – Nick Ross, Sense About Science

Launching the report, broadcaster Nick Ross, who is a trustee of Sense About Science, said the UK had "a creditable reputation for openness". But he said missing or "buried" research could fuel public cynicism about policymaking.

"One way or another we hand over to the government about a third of everything we earn," Ross said. "That’s almost three-quarters of a trillion pounds a year. We should expect Whitehall to spend it wisely on our behalf. 

"Yet while a lot of energy is spent scrutinising the private lives of individual politicians we know little about how much public policy is based on assertion, how much rests on dogma and how much is grounded on rigorous testing and analysis.

He added: "If we don’t know what works we are left with assumption — and, as we all know, assumption is the mother of a lot of mistakes, some of them very serious.

"Whether the issue is safety of vaccines or the right way to teach children or the best approach to drug abuse or crime, policies based on guesswork, half-truth or belief are not just potentially very wasteful but dangerous."

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