No evidence for good policy-making by soundbite

For eight years from 2005-13 I chaired a policy committee for the Department of Business in London. Our role was to look at problems, examine the evidence and offer advice to ministers and officials.

At the beginning we had a research budget and we usually started with a literature search – finding out what was already known. Sometimes this was enough, there would be sufficient in academic papers, evaluation of previous UK programmes or initiatives tried elsewhere for us to draw conclusions. If there were gaps, we could commission original research.

My role as chair was to distil the committee’s consensus view of the evidence into practical policy advice. Sometimes it was acted on, sometimes forgotten. Occasionally a minister would say: “I hear what you say, but politically I just can’t do that.” Our committee might grumble, but we had to accept it: the minister had the responsibility to make the decision and bear the consequences.

By the end of my time the job had changed. The research budget shrank and then disappeared. Instead of policy issues we were presented with one of two questions. Either “the minister wants to do this, can you provide evidence to show it is a good thing?” Or “the minister wants to do this, can you help us kill it off?”

Policy was less likely to come from evidence, instead it originated in dark corners of the political world, from ministers’ preferences or prejudices, their friends, special advisers or lobby groups. A tax change giving significant new reliefs to those investing in new businesses was introduced without any evidence that there was a problem which needed to be solved.

The announcement of a £40bn ‘funding for lending scheme’ made by the then Chancellor George Osborne to a Conservative Party conference took officials in the Treasury and the Business Department completely by surprise – no preparatory work had been done and they scrambled to interpret what it meant and how it would be implemented.

The announcements of a British Business Bank in the UK and a Scottish Investment Bank in Scotland were made for political reasons. Civil servants were left to work out how they could be made real – which they did in both cases by the time-honoured official ploy of renaming existing institutions. There was no investigation to show that a change of name was needed and no evaluation to show it had any more impact than the existing bodies would have had without change.

This trend transcended party politics. It started to happen in the last years of the Labour Government and, after 2010, continued with the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. Colleagues in similar policy groups in other countries report similar trends.

Scottish Government too

Scotland has not been immune. Several major policies have been introduced without it being obvious that evidence has been properly examined, or adequate preparation made for their implementation. This matters because it sometimes means policies are ineffective – they fail to meet their objectives – or they may be counter-productive and have to be corrected later.

The abolition of university tuition fees in 2007 is an example of the former. By ending the ‘graduate endowment’ – effectively a loan – the Scottish Government aimed to reduce student debt and encourage more students from disadvantaged backgrounds into higher education.

It has only been partially successful in the former, and failed in the latter. There is a lot of evidence to explain why poorer students are under-represented in universities: the cost of tuition is a factor, but only one among many and not necessarily the most important. England, with tuition fees, has done better than Scotland without.

Another example is the decision to merge police forces to form one centralised body – Police Scotland. The policy, announced in September 2011 was law a year later, hustled through the Scottish Parliament in three months. As Dr Kath Murray has pointed out there was no detailed business case and inadequate parliamentary scrutiny. Criticism since has ranged from failure to anticipate a £76m VAT bill to unnecessarily heavy-handed policing, including excessive use of stop and search powers and the presence of armed police in quiet rural towns.

The consultation which preceded last year’s announcement of the introduction of a national system of standardised testing in schools has been shown to have been based on four emails (from two academics) and a series of unminuted meetings. The policy has been widely criticised and now appears to be being watered down before it is implemented.

We live in an age of fast change. Policy based on evidence takes longer to progress from inspiration to implementation than policy made to fit clever soundbites. But it is likely to be more effective and less likely to need revision and correction later. None of the policy examples given above is necessarily ‘wrong’ but they could have been more effective had they been thought through first.

First published by the David Hume Institute and republished here with permission


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