It’s not enough to learn from history

Ministers & officials must also put those lessons into practice.

By Matt.Ross

13 Mar 2013

Lord Butler is quite right to argue that departments should strengthen their understanding of history (see news and his article). And the Cabinet Office’s establishment of the What Works Network (WWN) is also sensible: as long as departments’ own information-gathering, analytical and policymaking capabilities aren’t weakened, the WWN’s arrival can only improve the policy options presented to ministers.

Yet few would argue that past attempts to strengthen evidence-based policymaking foundered only on a lack of historical or scientific knowledge: the other essential part of this puzzle is for ministers to give hard data greater weight when balanced against their own beliefs and political interests. Most politicians have a strong sense of personal mission and of their own rectitude – without that, they wouldn’t become politicians – so simply providing better information can only do so much.

After all, the ministers who decided to occupy Afghanistan and build a democracy knew of the Soviets’ experience there; and of our own, 170 years ago. Blind to the fact that the Afghans – whose knowledge of local history puts many UK departments to shame – resent all foreign occupiers (and the British in particular), they believed the Afghan populace would recognise how different they were from the invaders who’d preceded them.

Equally, those who decided to invade Iraq knew of its sectarian and ethnic divides: Saddam’s attacks on the Shi’a ‘Marsh Arabs’ and Kurds were used to justify the invasion. History tells us that occupations of divided societies rarely end well; yet Tony Blair railroaded it through.

In social policy, ministers are often even more wedded to particular views of a problem – and, thus, to particular solutions. On ‘vulnerable families’ and crime – two of the WWN’s research areas – politicians struggle to accept research or historical data that clashes with their views and those of their allies and power bases. And on our ageing population, a widespread recognition of the challenges has not produced the consensual solution required: attempts to forge a policy have to date collapsed as one party seeks political advantage at the other’s expense.

Nonetheless, an improvement in the flow of learning and research would certainly help officials – both to identify effective policies, and to win ministers’ support for them – and there are signs that hard facts could gain ground in policymaking. The growth of payment by results initiatives, for example, should give providers a hard push to focus on efficacy. Meanwhile, the WWN will support the discussion of awkward questions at arm’s length from Westminster – giving politicians convenient ‘deniability’ whilst raising the profile of crucial issues such as our ageing demographics. Neither change, of course, directly increases the pressure on ministers to build policies around evidence; but another recent innovation does.

Opposite, we take a look at the operation of the National Security Council. Inevitably, it has not achieved everything that everybody wanted – but it has both ensured that hard evidence gets a proper hearing, and addressed Butler’s second point: the need to bring “to bear as much as possible of the knowledge, experience, and perspectives available”. The NSC has ensured that there’s a dedicated secretariat researching and reporting on key issues; that the relevant actors and information are brought together as these issues are considered; and that all expert perspectives and views are heard in the policymaking process. Along with the increased formality of decision-making in a coalition government, the NSC has vastly improved policymaking on security issues since the Blairite era of ‘sofa government’ – when pivotal policies were devised by a tiny group of Number 10 insiders. Hindsight cannot tell us whether, for example, the NSC system might have produced a different outcome on Iraq; but it would surely have ensured better management of intelligence information, and brought in a wider range of voices at the moment of truth.

The NSC model could certainly be used more widely: Iain Duncan Smith’s special adviser Philippa Stroud, for example, has called for the creation of a National Council for Social Justice. However it is done, though, a strengthening of historical and scientific advice will be wasted unless it’s matched by the other crucial part of this picture: ways to give hard evidence greater weight when balanced against the political calculations and personal beliefs that form another essential element of policymaking in our democratic society.

Matt Ross, Editor.

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