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4 October 1999

A new style of governing

Men in grey suits: the revolution - Civil servants will make better decisions if they have

By John Lloyd

A project described as “revolutionary” to the way in which policy is made in Britain is now surfacing – after months in which it received almost no publicity and was known to only a few ministers. “Evidence-based policy research”, as the project has been blandly titled, aims to increase greatly the competence of politicians and officials by giving them access to the latest and best domestic and international data on the schemes they wish to launch or the areas they seek to improve.

“I believe this could be absolutely revolutionary,” says Sir Michael Peckham, one of those closely involved with the development of the project. Peckham, the first head of research for the National Health Service till 1995 and now director of the School of Public Policy at University College London, argues that the project will not only change the way government makes policy but also “the way people in universities and institutes do research”.

It all started with a book published in 1972 by a medical scientist named Archibald Cochrane. Effectiveness and Efficiency was a sustained polemic against his profession’s ignorance on health care – an ignorance that stemmed from the inability of the researcher, doctor or nurse to have at their command the latest research findings on the problem before them.

His ideas struck a deep chord with another doctor, Iain Chalmers, who worked in the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit. Chalmers set up, in the early nineties, a government-funded centre which, in Chalmers’ words, “began to synthesise research, find out what had worked, what was the latest – and make it available”.

The project was launched under the name Cochrane Collaboration, the name signifying that the indispensable element in the project was collaboration among different centres all over the world. There are now 15 centres and 50 Cochrane groups.

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By the mid-nineties, when Peckham retired from the NHS, the idea was beginning to be reflected in a range of different forums and to move out of the medical arena.

These ideas needed a catalyst; they found it in yet another site – the Economic and Social Research Council, the funding body for research into the social sciences and, as such, the body of greatest interest to policy-makers looking for advice.

Or it should have been; in fact, when Ron Amann, who had been pro-vice chancellor of the University of Birmingham, took over as director in 1994, he thought that it didn’t live up to its brief. Social science research was funded in a too ad hoc manner; a great deal was done in some areas, nothing in others. Steve Morgan, head of research at the ESRC, says that “the ways of better connecting social science data with policy-making had been a debate within the ESRC for years. But then, in the nineties, the success of the Cochrane Centre became a talking point within the research community; and we decided last year to begin to move on, creating a kind of Cochrane Collaboration on a broader canvas.”

The ESRC’s plan, worked through carefully with the government and especially with the Social Exclusion Unit, is to invite some 60 institutes and universities to bid to become one of two kinds of “evidence-based policy” centres. The first is a major clearing house for all knowledge on public policy; a kind of hub, into which is pumped the riches of research in education, criminology, health care, pension reform, local government, the alleviation of poverty and more. Round it will circle half a dozen satellite centres or nodes, which specialise in themes or in approaches.

One of the bidding centres is the Warwick Business School attached to the University of Warwick in Coventry; John Bennington teaches in its local government unit and has drawn up the school’s bid. “We do ‘formative evaluation’ – which means we want to see what happens on the ground. This government has not moved to legislate quickly in many areas – it’s put out grand statements of intent and left the implementation to local actors. We want to give evidence on the progress they make, but also to give indications on how it might be done better, so that this can be fed back to the policy-makers to make use of. The crucial thing is that it’s prescriptive, not retrospective. We’ve been evaluating lots of European Union programmes at the local level, and we do them, produce a lot of work – and it lies, gathering dust, on bookshelves. No one reads it. That’s useless research.”

Anne Oakley, a professor at London’s Institute of Education, is one of the main shapers of the new consensus on policy-making. In her book Experiments in Knowing she argues for learning from the United States, of all countries the most advanced in constructing systems and networks for the evaluation of policy.

In a paper last year she wrote that “in many countries, including the UK, rigorous evaluation of the kind used in the United States’ experiments tends to be rejected as inapplicable to the study of social intervention, and the links between reliable knowledge and policy development are widely seen to be tenuous or non-existent”. She says that “what’s happening here is in some ways what happened in the US in the seventies – their government was committed to proper evaluation”.

These initiatives have come together for one reason above all: the government is urgently seeking a new way of governing. Steve Morgan says that “Tony Blair came in with the ideas of joined-up government – that what works is what should be. You had to bring in knowledge and expertise across government departments – you have to have a multidimensional approach, not too compartmentalised.”

Departments retain their own networks of researchers, their own circles of academics and institutes with which they conduct debates or polemics. The explicit aim of the new project is to break down these discrete networks and get them to mix and mingle; to see what they can learn from each other; above all, to end the practice where one minister or department launches a major initiative without testing out its effect on all other branches of government and society.

Blair took Amann into the Cabinet Office from the ESRC earlier this year to oversee the joining up of his government over the next few years. His task will be to work out not just how and in what form the information goes to relevant officials and policy-makers but also to see where this new cascade of information leads the departments; how far their specialities have to be reconfigured; how far learning what happens when governments do things changes the legislative process, the nature of cabinet government and the very pledges governments and opposition parties make to electors.

Already, in the Department of Education and Employment, an “education information unit”, explicitly based on the Cochrane Centre, is being set up and should be working by late autumn. From this modest beginning, those closely concerned with its development foresee teachers clearing away some of the fog about teaching methods by being able to call up a synthesis of the latest research – complete with recommendations of what works – and being able to challenge head teachers or the department. Indeed, more adventurous souls see pupils using data to challenge teachers – a new variant on the notion of “empowerment”.

Peckham says that “this could be a new relationship between the universities and research centres and the government. A lot of wasted work goes on – duplication, too much chewing over the same ground – and much of it, good and bad, is simply lost or barely known. We are good at this stuff, but we must get it out.”

The government is even more impatient with academic waste; it wants to remould the relationship between it and the intelligentsia and academia, making the latter more focused on the tasks of policy.

In a talk on 14 September to the British Association for the Advancement of Science held in Sheffield, David Miliband, the head of Blair’s Policy Unit, said that “the challenge is for a more profound change in the relationship between the government and intellectual life, whether it is based in academia, the voluntary sector or industry. There is a big role for academics if they choose to . . . become engaged in debate beyond the confines of academic journals. It is the shift from what Richard Rorty [the American commentator] calls spectatorship to agency.”

It is indeed a large challenge; for implicit in Miliband’s words is a muted scorn for the “commentators” who do not get “engaged”.

Academics tend to see that as co-option. The notions that government and the academy have of each other seem set to be greatly altered – as does the notion of government itself.

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