Not a man to be swayed by fads

August 27, 2004

The ESRC's new director won't let trends prevent research into social evolution, says Terry Philpot.

Despite Labour's seeming impatience with public-sector reform - likely to be a major debating point at next month's party conference - Christopher Hood, newly appointed director of the Economic and Social Research Council's public service delivery programme, is not phased.

Hood prefers to take the long-term view. He is the academic's academic. He weighs his words carefully, and he is unrattled by the plethora of reform programmes issuing from think-tanks and the No 10 Innovation Unit. His view seems to suggest that there is nothing new under the sun, and he quibbles with the proposal that the Government is borrowing ideas lock, stock and barrel from the private sector. It is simply not true, he says, that "the traffic is all one way". He is careful to back up his arguments, at one point referring to debates during the Crimean War. He cites a list of public-sector reforms that have a long historical precedent: road pricing was suggested 40 years ago, for instance, and GP fund-holding harks back to medical insurance systems in the early 20th century.

Hood applied for the ESRC job because, he says, he could "help bring together research from many different perspectives". But this is an understatement: his ESRC programme foresees the involvement from disciplines that tend to be absent from No 10 and think-tanks: anthropology, psychology, geography and history among them. Hood, though, has a more traditional background in public policy. He comes to the post as Gladstone professor of government at Oxford University and director of the Centre for the Analysis of Risk and Regulation at the London School of Economics, which he founded in 1991. He has devoted more than 30 years to administrative reform and public administration, and has spent the past decade studying regulatory reform.

His views are in keeping with the ESRC's programme specification, which states: "Studies of public services can fail to make an impact if they are too present-focussed." It goes on to refer to "today's fads, fashions and preoccupations".

Is public-sector reform too driven by today's "preoccupations"? Hood says he doesn't have the evidence to say one way or the other, but he says: "I would suspect that the subject of public organisation and management is one that naturally lends itself to neologism and the exaggeration of novelty."

He adds that this may be because ideas need to be sold heavily to be acted on. "For something to make even the smallest incremental change in the Government, it has to be sold as if it were the panacea for all the ills of the Government just to move the great bureaucratic machine even a small amount."

Hood's considered, long-term view is necessary for someone in charge of a five-year, £4.9 million research programme. But can the Government wait this long for academic research?

Hood says it will have to as this is the nature of ESRC commissions. "It takes time for awards to be made, for the work to be done, for it to be peer-reviewed. We're not trying to pick up yesterday's fashion; we are thinking in a three to five-year frame." It needs a historical, comparative and evidence-based perspective, he adds, that "allows us to evaluate developments and to trace patterns of evolution in a more systematic and rigorous way than might otherwise have been possible".

He is already thinking about how the programme might make an impact. There will be seminars for practitioners and others, such as auditors, who review public services, and there is an "international clientele" such as the International Public Management Network. Hood also has an eye on dates when policy will be reviewed, such as the announcement of five-year plans and the annual expenditure review. But the emphasis will be on an evidence-based approach, whatever the "fads, fashions and preoccupations" might suggest.

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