Whitehall urged to improve "ad hoc" data sharing with governments in Holyrood, Stormont and Cardiff

Report by the Alliance for Useful Evidence and the Institute for Government finds officials held back by "structural and cultural barriers" between UK's various governments

By matt.foster

03 Feb 2016

An "ad hoc" approach to the sharing of policy ideas between Whitehall and the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may mean government is "missing out" on innovative ways to tackle social problems, a new report has warned.

The joint study by the Alliance for Useful Evidence and the Institute for Government think tanks, based on a seminar attended by senior civil servants from across the UK, says that devolution has opened up new opportunities for the various governments to experiment with policy initiatives. But it warns that there are still "structural and cultural barriers" limiting the exchange of evidence between Whitehall and the rest of the UK.

The stark political differences between Britain's governments - exemplified by the triumph of the SNP in Scotland at the same time as the Conservatives hold a majority in Westminster - has generated a "reluctance to share data or lessons" for fear of handing "ammunition" to political opponents, the authors say.

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"Cultural differences between the four political systems also seem to have increased, including in terms of how policy is made, how evidence is used, and even how certain concepts (such as wellbeing) are understood," they add.

Existing bodies designed to bring the administrations together, including the Joint Ministerial Committee, are "not generally seen as providing particularly useful forums for evidence exchange", according to the report, while there is a perception that the interchange of staff between Whitehall and the devolved governments has also declined.

The report praises recent Cabinet Office initiatives, including the new "One Civil Service" interchange scheme designed to give officials in UK departments, as well as those in the Scottish and Welsh governments, more opportunity to experience life working for another administration. But it says the UK government-sponsored What Works Centres - set up in a bid to improve government's use of evidence and encourage sharing of policy ideas - still have "a largely English focus".

The report urges the government to clarify how the network fits in with the devolution agenda, and recommends that devolved governments be engaged "earlier and more extensively" before new centres are set up.

Ministers should also do more to encourage officials to develop relationships with their devolved counterparts, the report recommends, while it says there is scope for new "cross-government policy networks" and "department-level data-sharing agreements" to try and join up some of the dots.

"Devolution provides us with a wonderful opportunity to develop and share innovative and creative approaches to social policy, yet the UK has failed to live up to this promise of becoming a 'living laboratory' for policy exchange and development," said Jonathan Breckon, head of the Alliance for Useful Evidence.

"Instead, learning across the UK, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales governments remains ad hoc and there appear to be few formal structures in place to support evidence exchange amongst civil servants across these jurisdictions. Systems to encourage comparable public service performance data are relatively underdeveloped and the cultural differences in political control and policy style between the four governments may also limit the appetite for learning and sharing."

Former civil service head Lord O'Donnell last month warned that the soaring cost of housing in London was preventing talented officials from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland from gaining experience in Whitehall. But he warned against moves to give Scotland a separate civil service, saying the referendum on Scottish independence had demonstrated the organisation's ability to serve two political masters while avoiding major controversies.

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