More policy advice from civil servants to ministers should be made public to increase transparency and encourage ministers to engage with evidence and analysis when making decisions, a think tank has said.
There is a “strong case” for regularly publishing more civil service advice, analysis and evidence during and after the policymaking process, the Institute for Government said in its Whitehall Monitor report.
The annual report, which assesses the issues affecting the effective running of government, argues that knowing their policy advice will be published would “encourage officials to include a high standard of evidence and analysis, and would disincentivise civil servants from telling ministers what they think they want to hear”.
It would also encourage ministers to engage with it and open up policymaking to more scrutiny from MPs, other parts of the public sector and elsewhere, the IfG said.
The report argues that shining a light on policy advice could also prove beneficial to recruitment – saying that some high-calibre professionals who would otherwise consider a career in government are “dissuaded from doing so because they fear being forced to defend policies that disregard their recommendations, damaging their professional reputation”.
The report calls on ministers and senior officials to take inspiration from other parts of government on what kind of policy advice to publish more of in the future. For example, central government departments could take a similar approach to local government publishing reports of cabinet meetings ahead of public executive meetings – which the report says does not hinder private advice early on in the decision-making process, but “does arguably improve the standard of analysis and evidence used”.
Rwanda scheme controversy 'highlights need' for public policy advice
The need to publish more policy advice was underlined by the storm over the Home Office’s controversial Rwanda asylum scheme, through which asylum seekers are sent to the east African country for “processing” and resettlement, the IfG said.
The Home Office lost a court battle last summer over its attempt to keep policy advice on the Rwanda scheme secret, when three media outlets attempted to force the publication of 10 redacted passages that they said would be in the public interest.
Liz Truss, who was foreign secretary at the time, said making the passages public could damage international relations and national security. However, the judge ruled that there was public interest in making six of the 10 – which were contained in a draft country policy and information note about the asylum system and related human rights issues in Rwanda, and in an accompanying email – public.
The IfG said fierce criticism of the Home Office’s “closed development” of the Rwanda scheme, “during which it inadequately engaged with other departments, parts of the public sector or other stakeholders”, reiterated the need to publish more policy advice and evidence.
The report also noted that the “lack of evidence to support ministers’ belief that the Rwanda scheme would deter asylum seekers from crossing the Channel in small boats” prompted Home Office perm sec Matthew Rycroft to request a ministerial direction from Priti Patel to proceed with the scheme.
Rycroft told the then-home secretary: “Evidence of a deterrent effect is highly uncertain and cannot be quantified with sufficient certainty to provide me with the necessary level of assurance over value for money.”
Publication of more policy advice 'could complement new statute'
The publication of more civil service policy advice could “sit alongside and complement” a move to put the civil service on a statutory footing – which the IfG called for in a report last spring.
Legislating for a new statute would strengthen the civil service’s accountability, identity and purpose, the think tank said, arguing that confused accountability between ministers and civil servants makes government less effective and makes it harder to learn from failures.
In the Whitehall Monitor report, the IfG said this could be a route to strengthening long-term policymaking, which it said has suffered as a result of short-termism and high rates of turnover among both civil servants and ministers.
The report noted that staff churn hit a peak in 2022, when 13.6% of officials either moved between departments or left the civil service altogether.
"Churn is a problem for institutional memory and departmental knowledge management, and it incentivises both ministers and officials to focus on work that might have some effect in the short time they are likely to be in post, rather than what would be most beneficial in years to come," the report said.
"The preference for immediate outcomes rather than lasting change is compounded for ministers by the four-to-five-year cycle of parliamentary terms."
These flaws in the policymaking process were highlighted through a series of events last year, the paper said, including the announcement of delays to the "fair funding review" of the allocation of resources to local authorities, and to reforms to the social-care cap.
"It is true that policy making has been disrupted by global events, such as higher-than-expected inflation and war in Ukraine. But none of these events were wholly unforeseeable. Even if their confluence is clearly difficult, long-term policy making must mitigate for wider economic circumstances or shifts in a government’s focus," it said.
"It is clearer than ever that civil servants must help ministers ensure they are able to take a long-term view. This means giving the civil service its own responsibility for the long-term capability of government and for maintaining a long-term perspective on key policy issues, incorporating that evidence into the advice given to ministers," it added.
Putting the civil service on a new statutory footing would provide it with this "stewardship responsibility", the IfG said.
"This would mean the civil service, and the head of the civil service specifically, ensuring more evidence is available and given to ministers on the long-term implications of policy."