Making Better Use of Evidence in Government

Governments and policymakers have access to more evidence than ever before – but this evidence does not always feed into policy. Peter Riddell surveys the policymaking landscape in the UK and suggests ways that research can better impact policy.

One of the paradoxes of modern government is that there has never been so much evidence around, nor so much worry about badly designed and implemented policymaking. All kinds of reasons can ​be advanced for this tension – the increased pace of modern politics in the age of instant response and social media, the greater ideological partisanship of political parties, and the increased complexity, and therefore fallibility, of government projects. Certainly there appears to be less time and space for reflection on, and consideration of, evidence.


That is one reason for the decline of the Royal Commission, the classic vehicle from the Victorian era until the 1970s for major problems to be investigated by committees of the eminent. Harold Wilson, forever the cynic, famously said that commissions take ‘minutes and waste years’, though he set up ten during his two periods as Prime Minister. But there have been just three since Margaret Thatcher took office in 1979, compared with 34 in the slightly shorter period since 1945. Prime Ministers now prefer to set up smaller, more rapidly reporting inquiries, which they can control.

Some of these inquiries have used evidence to build up support for significant changes in policy. Adair Turner's reports on pensions in 2004 and 2005 led to a reassessment of the balance of private and state provision, while Andrew Dilnot's work on the financing of care in old age eventually produced a shift in government policy. In other cases, such as John Browne's 2010 report on the funding of higher education, the analysis and recommendations were only partially implemented.

Often, of course, the evidence comes after the new policy initiative. That has been true of all governments, notably in some of their law and order, school and welfare initiatives. This is defended on the grounds that otherwise there is a bias towards inertia in the policymaking system, as caution in the face of vested interests will work against radical changes.

System Checks

The key is to have checks built into the system to ensure that evidence is considered before new policies are launched. That has been a central theme of the work of the Institute for Government. We have consistently argued that policy and implementation cannot be divided. Policymaking without regard to implementation often leads to expensive and controversial problems, and sometimes worse when new policies have to be abandoned.

This is far from just a UK phenomenon and parallel problems have been seen in France, Germany and the US (the latter notably over the introduction of the new health care provisions).

In 2011, the Institute for Government produced a report entitled Making Policy Better which argued that no one in departments or at the centre of government had responsibility for ensuring that policymaking is of high quality. We suggested the appointment of a policy director in each department, as well as the extension of the accounting officer role of Permanent Secretaries to cover proper processes in policymaking as well as value for money. This would have meant that a Permanent Secretary would be answerable to the Public Accounts Committee of the Commons for policymaking procedures. We also proposed that streamlined policy assessments be made available for public scrutiny. The underlying belief was that the policy process needs to be better informed by evidence that is high quality and up-to-date, takes account of previous policies and of experience from the front line, overseas and in the devolved administrations and in local government.

The initial reaction to the report in Whitehall was cool, with more than a hint of ‘we in Whitehall know about policymaking and don't need outside advice’. That changed in 2012 when the Civil Service Reform Plan was being prepared and ideas were being sought on policymaking. In particular, a review by the Policy Profession Board under Chris Wormald, the Permanent Secretary at the Education Department, led to the publication in October 2013 of a report on ‘Twelve Actions to Professionalise Policy Making’. This focused on the better use of evidence in government around the theme of Open Policy Making.

Policy Making Innovations

Apart from the recommendations of best practice for departments, and their own parallel initiatives to improve policymaking, there have been four central policymaking innovations in UK government:

 Behavioural Insights Team

The application of academic research in behavioural economics and psychology – what has become known as ‘nudge’ – to policies intended to improve outcomes across a range of activities from tax collection, via health and energy use to charitable giving and fraud. The Behavioural Insights Team has been important in its own right, but it has also served as an example of the application of evidence in policymaking that has had wider implications, such as the creation of the What Works centres.

 What Works Centres

The What Works Centres have been set up to use evidence to make better decisions to improve public services. These have built on the example of NICE – the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence – which has used evidence to inform very tricky decisions on the approval of drugs and health spending. The intention has been to spread this approach with the use of high quality evidence on what works – and, equally importantly, what does not work – to decision makers in other public services. This involves producing a common set of standards in each area to compare the effectiveness of interventions. The emphasis is on ensuring that evidence is well presented and shared with policymakers to develop an informed view of what is cost-effective in public services. Local commissioners decide on how best to spend public money and public service providers help decide on how best to deliver and improve public services.

The What Works Centres cover areas with public spending of more than £200 billion. They include NICE, which has broadened its remit to cover social care as well as health; the Education Endowment Foundation set up by the Sutton Trust for improving educational outcomes for school-aged children; the Centre for Local Economic Growth (hosted by the London School of Economics, Arup and the Centre for Cities); the Centre for Crime Reduction (a partnership between the College of Policing and a consortium of eight universities); the Centre for Early Intervention, aimed at improving the life chances of children; and the Centre for Ageing Better (backed by the Big Lottery Fund) which works with older people to promote active and independent ageing. The centres are independent, mainly charities, though, in general, have some initial support from central government departments.

 Contestable Policy Fund

The Contestable Policy Fund was created to allow ministers to commission specific pieces of policy development outside the civil service from external organisations such as think tanks, academic or voluntary bodies. The fund has a budget of £500,000 a year over the three years, from mid-2012 to mid-2015. This is not quite as new an idea as it appears and rests on the long-dated assumption that Whitehall is closed to outside ideas. That has been wrong since the late 1970s when many of the key innovations of the Thatcher era – such as privatisation – were imported from outside government, before being interpreted and developed by civil servants. Moreover, even with the Contestable Policy Fund, the assessment of policies and advice to ministers will remain with civil servants and advisers as before. Formalising such outside advice, however, does demonstrate Whitehall's desire to look outwards.

Initially, most attention was focused on a project on ministerial and civil service accountability which was commissioned in the summer of 2012 by Francis Maude, the Minister for the Civil Service, and carried out by the think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) and published a year later. This was a thorough piece of work but its recommendations got caught up in arguments between Mr Maude and senior civil servants. But some of its key proposals did get taken forward, even if not in exactly the form proposed, or have since remained central to the Whitehall debate. Less noticed, 15 other projects have been launched – from psychological wellbeing and work, via the thorny and hard-to-resolve topic of funded public service pension schemes, to improving maths skills in the vocational sector after the age of 16. However, there remains the suspicion that some of these projects might have been financed in the past out of departments’ own research budgets (now much reduced by successive squeezes on public spending plans).

 Policy Lab

The most original innovation, at least in UK terms, has been the Policy Lab which is intended to test how design principles and methods can improve the quality and deliverability of policy. Service design aims to shed new light on what services people really need and what a better solution might look like. There have been many such labs in the private sector though fewer in the public sector. The pioneers have been in Scandinavia, but there have also been such policy labs in Washington DC and Australia.

All these innovations are about ensuring that decisions are better informed. The snag is that these initiatives – with their talk of ‘randomised control trials’ and the like – often speak only to policy specialists. With rare exceptions, they have not penetrated the political world – either in Parliament or even amongst ministers. These are specialist and civil service lead initiatives, though with the enthusiastic backing of Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary and chief policy coordinator at the top of the government.

Expert Opinion

From the outside, too, there are frequent complaints that government – a broad entity encompassing ministers, civil servants and advisers – does not take sufficient account of academic and expert opinion. Some of these questions surfaced at an academic conference which the Institute for Government (IfG) organised with the Political Studies Association in May 2014. David Halpern, former Research Director of the IfG, What Works national adviser and Director of the Behavioural Insights Team, argued that skills in government were improving with more policymakers understanding the methods used to create evidence. This, he said, was being built into professional development. Advisory panels are being set up by departments so that more civil servants feel able to ask how government could do something differently and then tap into advice from academics on what research there is in a given area. Dr Halpern argued that international research engagement should be strengthened, developing a clearing house for evidence from government trials. This would allow policymakers to find out if anyone had already done some research and to stimulate shared research by governments where there is demand, but a gap in the evidence base.

A more critical view came from Dr Julian Allwood, a climate scientist from Cambridge University. He said government had confused evidence in its discussion of climate change, in part because of a clash of academic disciplines. Dr Allwood said it seemed that scientific advice is currently ‘tossed over the wall’ and we wait to see who picks it up: ‘There is a clash of cultures in this country, and it is partly because engineers don't always do a great job of going out and engaging people in their work, but it is also because of our tradition of humanities in government’.

The subsequent discussion underlined the problems created by the siloed approach of many universities. While the solutions to many problems are multi-disciplinary, universities themselves are not multi-disciplinary. An additional problem – also identified by former minister Charles Clarke in his book The Too Difficult Box – is that academics do not always present their findings in a language and a form which is easily accessible to policymakers. It is not just that civil servants and advisers need to be open to academic research and evidence, but academics also need to appreciate the constraints within which politicians and civil servants operate.

Research Impact

At the IfG/PSA conference, Carole Willis, Chief Executive of the National Foundation of Educational Research, offered three tips to create impact with research:

  1. Influence the influencers – senior policymakers and politicians turn to the analysts and researchers inside their departments, so you should feed your research to them. Ministers also rely on experts and think tanks, as well as both traditional and social media as important sources for them and their advisers. You need to engage and influence these groups. Working with them requires trust and time to build relationships – for example, sharing findings before publication.
  2. Presentation is critical – you should be producing short research reports, with a summary and setting out the policy implications clearly. The technical information and evidence should be in an annex to the main paper.
  3. What to research – try to answer questions that policymakers are asking; government itself can help with this by setting out the key questions in its policy area where there is a dearth of evidence. There is also growing emphasis on quantitative research.

Politicians and particularly civil servants, are much more open to outside evidence than they were. The key, however, is relevance. No amount of evidence will have any impact unless it chimes with the concerns and priorities of policymakers and politicians.

Peter Riddell is the Director of the Institute for Government.