I’ve been meaning to write a post about science minister David Willetts’ Eight Great Technologies pamphlet having attended its launch at the Policy Exchange recently. But my attention has been drawn to another debate that I’ve been following – about open policy making – by a tweet from the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir John Beddington.

The tweet announced the publication of Engaging with academics: how to further strengthen open policy making. (This has quickly been followed by The future of the Civil Service: Making the most of scientists and engineers in government – but that’s another (part of) the story.)

Recent discussion of the ‘open policy making’ idea is rooted in the Civil Service Reform Plan, action 5 of which, promises a ‘clear model’ designed to improve policy making capability. The basic idea is that, while maintaining a ‘safe and protected space’ in which to formulate policy itself, policy makers will seek “the maximum possible openness to new thinking or in the gathering of evidence and insight from external experts".

Getting external input is, of course, becoming increasingly important as the capacity of the Civil Service itself diminishes and the additional standing reserve offered by the more expensive non-departmental public bodies goes up in smoke. Open policy making is not ‘government for nothing’, but it almost is. (A centrally-resourced match fund for commissioning external advice, for which departments can compete, will be made available, worth up to £1 million per year.)

It speaks of the financial constrictions around the machinery of government that Engaging with Academics should advertise its approach as a low-cost alternative: “Engaging with academia can be free” it says at one point; at another: “the cost of their [i.e. academics’] input is very low”. The clever bit, though, is that government’s demand for external advice does not drive up its cost. This is because when government is short of money, so, naturally, are those who depend on government for their funding. And hungry academics are now able to receive payment in kind, in a new and appreciating currency, namely REF credit, 20% of which they receive for impact, of which ‘policy impact’ is likely to be among the most important coin, at least for those whose work is not readily commercialisable in any other way.

But in what way does ‘open policy making’ involve ‘engaging’ with academics – or indeed with anyone else? I’ve listened to a number of contributions and debates about this model of open policy making over the last few weeks, as many of those hitherto on the outside of the ‘safe and protected space’ clearly feel that something important is up for grabs. For example, I listened to a panel discussion sponsored by the Alliance for Useful Evidence (the panel included Chris Wormald, the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education and Head of the Policy Profession in the Civil Service) concerning opportunities for bathing ‘the safe and protected space’ of policy advice with methodologically robust quantitative (or quantifiable) evidence of asserted relevance. However, this discussion seemed content that the formulation of policy itself should remain a kind of alchemy, something that happens behind the curtains at the back of the chemist’s shop after the prescription is handed over and before the cure is delivered. (Interestingly, my perception during questions from the floor was that most of those involved had worked on both sides of the notional fence separating government from academia at some stage in their careers, and many had hopped over it more than once.) What was lacking was a sense of how different kinds of quantitative data might inform the ground of decision making rather than merely promote different options, how they might frame policy formation. (Of course, the claim that certain kinds of quantitative evidence should frame particular policy questions is what led to fibrillations in the system of scientific advisory committees in 2009, that led to the related GO Science publication of new Guidelines on the Use of Scientific and Engineering Advice in Policy Making).

Despite being addressed to policy makers, which gives it an occasionally proprietorial tone (“work closely with your academics”, it exhorts), Engaging with Academics articulates many commendable suggestions and admonitions. For example, the blurb says that involving academics can be helpful in many ways including providing fresh perspectives which help tackle orthodoxies and "group think", a theme highlighted in our recent Emerging Biotechnologies report. The list of “Dos and Don’ts” in Engaging with Academics also reflects our report’s recommendations that science policy should avoid an overemphasis on technological rather than social solutions to problems with substantial social dimensions (“Do consider all disciplines; lots of issues may obviously be natural science, but what could the social sciences offer”) and that, in seeking technical advice, policy makers should avoid sole reliance on a limited range of established experts in particular fields (“don’t be tempted to go to the same academic again and again on similar issues; it is better on both sides to seek out a range of sources”). Although it’s hard to disagree with these apothegms, they are worth articulating as reflection and engagement are often the first casualties when time and cost pressures bear down.

When words like ‘engaging’ or ‘engagement’ are used, however, they promise a possibility of informing the ‘safe and protected space’ of policy making, beyond merely to piling data into it. This means opening up the question of significance, of how such data should figure in the process rather than simply compounding the factors to be taken into account and making possible rhetorical incomprehension that they may appear to be ignored. It implies the possibility that open policy making might not leave the ‘safe and protected space’ unaltered.

If you have dipped into Emerging Biotechnologies you’ll be aware that its model of ‘public discourse ethics’ is precisely about engagements that structure the way in which different influences (kinds of evidence, values, interests) are brought together to define public responses to questions of collective importance. Engagement is a good word for this process, as long as it is understood to imply inclusivity rather than bipartisanship. This requires not just inputs of evidence (for example, public opinion as evidence, packaged by social science academics or market researchers) but opening the ‘safe and protected space’, in many areas of science and technology policy, not to joint control or to external interference, but to shaping by public values.

These questions were raised recently (by Sir Roland Jackson, Executive Chair of BIS’s Sciencewise programme among others), at a second meeting I attended on “Experts, publics and open policy”, on 15th January. Perhaps they will be taken further taken up at a SPRU/UCL panel meeting this week on “What Counts as Good Evidence for Policy?” (sadly now sold out). ‘Open policy making’ is a concept still in want of content, but an important debate for the future of public policy is now well underway.

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