The government should review pay and progression for civil service analysts and policymakers working in technical fields to tackle churn and retain expertise needed to hit its net-zero emissions target, a think tank has said.
Tackling churn is one of several actions the government should take if it hopes to meet the 2050 goal, according to the Institute for Government.
It should also step up its engagement with a wider pool of external experts, the IfG has said in its latest report, which warns that “narrow advice and expertise” threatens the success of the net-zero target.
It said the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which is leading the government’s efforts to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, employs more civil service analysts, with more responsibilities, than many of its international peers.
But officials the IfG spoke to for the report said institutional memory was a problem in energy policy, and “had the effect of recycling ideas, potentially including bad ones”.
And retaining analysts can be a challenge, as their training can take up to two years, at which point restrictive pay and progression structures often leads to them looking for a new job to secure a pay rise.
The report noted that the “effects of churn should not be exaggerated”, and that some officials felt energy policy suffered less than other areas of expertise in the civil service, given that jobs attract people with a background in the field.
However, it said “several” contributors to the report “highlighted that personnel turnover creates challenges for effective use of evidence in energy policy”.
Given that civil service reform is currently high on the government’s agenda, and is likely to involve a review of pay and progression, the IfG said it should seize the opportunity to “consider how it can reward analysts and policy makers for developing expertise in highly technical sectors, and in complex markets like energy”.
The think tank also called on the department to diversify the external sources of expertise it calls upon to inform policy. Officials are too quick to turn to a “small pool of ‘usual suspects’” when looking for advice from outside BEIS, usually from the energy industry, according to the report.
While there have been success stories in energy policy, notably offshore wind, this narrow advice has led to policy failures that “could have been avoided with a more public, consultative policy-making process and better use of evidence”, the IfG said.
For example, the “poor use of evidence and muddled strategic thinking has produced policy disappointments such as the Green Deal, which failed to stimulate anything like the number of energy efficiency upgrades necessary to get the UK’s housing stock ready for net zero”.
The government must increase the pool of evidence it draws from on energy policy to include more academic experts, foreign governments, social scientists, consumer groups, independent government agencies and civil society bodies, the IfG said.
It said government should therefore be “more systematic” about how it consults external experts.
“Knowing who to speak to, and passing on a viable network of relevant contacts and experts, should be considered a key responsibility for relevant civil servants,” the report said.
BEIS should also dedicate more resources to the external centres of excellence that it funds, including Energy Systems Catapult and the UK Energy Research Centre, and expand their remit, the think tank added.
The report also calls on the government to be more transparent about its use of evidence by publishing more of the research is produces.
Will McDowall, senior researcher at the Institute for Government, said: “The UK’s model of policy making is expert, but isolated. Our energy department has stronger analytic capacity than many other governments, but it needs to do a better job of talking to people on the outside.
“The UK government has had some real successes in energy policy, particularly offshore wind. But there have been too many that failed to deliver or were abandoned before they took effect. We can do much better.”