Exclusive: Poll: outsourcing ‘bias’ fears

Civil servants are split over whether outsourcing policymaking is a good idea in principle, but a clear majority have concerns about implementation, exclusive research by CSW has revealed. The greatest concern is that ministers will commission policy work from favoured institutions, creating “unchallenged bias” in the policymaking process.

By Joshua.Chambers

05 Sep 2012

CSW polled 1,053 civil servants; 429 were senior civil servants or in grades six and seven, while 286 were in the policy profession. They were asked: “As part of its ‘open policymaking agenda’, the government has established a fund to enable ministers to commission policy advice from outside the civil service. What do you think of this idea?”

In response, only eight per cent of civil servants – seven per cent in the policy profession and senior grades – said “it’s a great idea and should work well”. Every other participant expressed concerns about the initiative.

The idea did receive broad support from a further 34 per cent of civil servants, who said: “It’s a good idea, but I have concerns about implementation”. But 37 per cent said: “It’s a flawed idea and the risks may outweigh the benefits”, while 15 per cent said: “It’s a poor idea and unlikely to work”. A further seven per cent said: “Don’t know/neutral.”

Both those civil servants who broadly supported the idea and those who were suspicious were asked to name the plan’s biggest pros and cons.

Of those who were positive, the greatest appeal (named by 32 per cent of civil servants) was: “It is likely to increase the number of policy options presented to ministers.” Asked about the idea’s risks, 42 per cent of its backers – and 49 per cent of supportive policymakers – said: “Ministers may seek to commission policy advice from think tanks or academics known to share their political views, leading to unchallenged bias in the policymaking process.” A further 30 per cent warned that: “External policymakers may not understand delivery considerations around the operation of government, the requirements of law, and/or the complexity of public sector business processes.”

Meanwhile, of those who were broadly opposed to the idea, the greatest concern was again that ministers would commission from organisations sharing their views, named by 44 per cent. Their second greatest concern was: “External policymakers may be subject to conflicts of interest that render their conclusions suspect or unreliable.”

Of those who were opposed to the idea, 32 per cent said: “It has no positive aspects.” However, of those who were positive, every respondent chose to name a drawback or risk.

Responding to concerns about the potential for unchallenged bias, cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood told CSW: “I think that concern is significantly exaggerated, but it’s something that I know some people do have.”

“I don’t want to lead to less challenging policy advice. If anything, it’s the other way around: we want to broaden the range of advice that ministers have access to and increase the degree of contestability,” he added. “I’m very confident it can be done in a good, pragmatic way.”

See our special report for the full poll findings.


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