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Institute calls for better quality control on policy civil servants

Numerous attempts to improve policy making under the last government fell short and left civil servants feeling frustrated, according to new research by the Institute for Government.

The year-long research into better policy making, based on interviews with 50 senior civil servants and 20 former ministers, as well as an analysis of 60 evaluations of government policy, found that:

  • earlier attempts at reforming the policy making process were too distant from the real world of policy making - in particular they ignored the role of ministers and the importance of politics, including the  pressures in the system to produce new short-term policy initiatives
  • too often relations between ministers and civil servants fell short of the open, honest and trusting ideal both wanted to see
  • ministers often felt they were brought into the policy process too late; civil servants were unclear about ministers' overall goals
  • there was limited challenge - either of ministers by civil servants or within the civil service; a lack of a learning culture which meant government often did not use the evaluations it commissioned; not enough emphasis on policy design to make sure ideas could be effectively implemented and some real concerns about knowledge and expertise in the civil service.

Moreover:

  • The nature of policy making is changing because of increased decentralisation, the need for and government to tackle more complex problems (like climate change and obesity);
  • Whitehall itself is changing with administrative budgets being cut; large numbers of experienced civil servants leaving; and new models being introduced to make policy through flexible teams.
  • The new report Making Policy Better, proposes a series of changes to embed better policy making into the system. They build on the new Policy Skills Framework announced by the Civil Service last year - but drive those changes further and faster.

We call for:

  • A public statement by each department (secretary of state and permanent secretary) on how they will meet a set of new "policy fundamentals" - the building blocks of good policy. The minister and the civil service can then be held to account by, for instance, a departmental select committee, on how far they have met that commitment
  • A new responsibility for the permanent secretary to ensure that 'good policy process' has been followed - along the lines of their existing responsibility for value for money; Policy Directors in departments would be personally accountable to departmental select committees for the quality of 'policy assessments' published alongside new policies.
  • A new Head of Policy Effectiveness in the Cabinet Office - a very senior official  responsible for ensuring the quality of policy making in government, overseeing evaluations to make sure they are both independent and used and able to commission lessons learned exercises when things go wrong;
  • New emphasis on both ministers and civil servants recognising the value each brings to the policy making process.

The Institute also wants to see changes in the way in which ministers and civil servants operate.

Ministers, we argue, need to be involved in policy earlier and at the strategic goal-setting stage;   the policy process needs to be more open and have greater scope for challenge; the civil service needs better analytic skills, but also to become better at innovation and policy design and to value knowledge and expertise more. 

Finally, our research argues that in a world of decentralised services and complex problems, our notion of policy success needs to change and policy makers need to see themselves as "stewards" of systems with multiple policy makers and not judge success on numbers of initiatives, bills or speeches.

Commenting on the report, Programme Director and Making Policy Better co-author, Jill Rutter said:

"Better policies come from getting the right blend of political vision and judgement from ministers and high quality advice from the civil service. We need processes that recognise and allow both to make their essential contribution.

"The changes we propose give the Civil Service a much clearer public duty to ensure that the processes of policy making are robust, through observing the policy fundamentals - while leaving the final policy decisions where they belong - with ministers. That will put relations between ministers and civil servants on a more solid basis - to mutual benefit.

"Both need also to recognise that the best policies are rarely made behind closed doors in Whitehall, which means the policy process needs to be opened out and engage those whose decisions affect what ultimately happens.

"It's striking that there is no one person, either in departments or at the centre, who is responsible for the quality of policy making - both making sure policies have been tested properly before the government commits and ensuring lessons are learned from what happens when they are put into practice. We think that needs to change."

The emphasis in this report is on how the Civil Service needs to change. The Institute is also looking at what makes an effective minister, which will be published in May.

 

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