Teaching the government to think

February 21, 1997

William Plowden believes a Labour administration should exploit the nation's intellectual capital by drafting academics into Whitehall

Not quite 30 years ago Edward Heath, leader of the Conservative opposition, set up a small group of former senior civil servants led by Baroness ("Dame Evelyn") Sharp to advise him on ways of improving the machinery of government. The group's proposals included setting up a small central unit to help the cabinet, and the prime minister in particular, in planning the government's priorities and putting these into practice. The result, in 1970, was the Central Policy Review Staff - familiar, under the name of its first head, as the "Rothschild Think Tank''.

Margaret Thatcher saw no need for advice from the think tank, and abolished it in 1983. Recent speculation about a Blair government has included the possibility of a Think Tank Mark II. Would this be helpful - or is the CPRS an obsolete conception?

CPRS tried to do four things that government either does not do, or does at best indifferently. It thought about the longer term. It looked at problems and policies that fell across the gaps between departments. It teased out the hidden agendas and unintended consequence that lay behind the actions and proposals of individual departments and their ministers. It occasionally dared to "think the unthinkable''.

Even in the world of the new public management, it would be foolish to claim that none of these tasks needs doing. But Tony Blair would have to decide whether he could live with a recreated semi-independent think tank of the Rothschild type, licensed to roam the government jungle asking subversive questions. It might be seen as a possible threat to his authority. It could be more effectively controlled if it was stabled in Number Ten, linked to the Prime Minister's Policy Unit.

On the other hand, a "think tank'' too closely tied to the prime minister would find it hard to engage in independent thought. It would not do most of the tasks for which it had been set up. The bold option would be to beef up the Policy Unit and create a freestanding CPRS-type unit, licensed to roam, to question and to think.

It could consult independent experts outside government with less fear of the consequences of leaks. One such group is academics. If a think tank could rebuild effective working relationships between government and academe, it would make a major contribution to better governance.

Current working relationships between government and academia are far from satisfactory. An Economic and Social Research Council-funded colloquium on social science and public policy concluded in 1992 that people in central government did not fully understand how academic research could contribute to public policy. They also did too little to inform academics either about policy-making or specific gaps that might be filled by research.

On the other hand academics too often "write in language impenetrable to the practitioner, are introverted and ignorant about the public policy process, are insensitive to government's priorities, uninterested in dissemination ... or application of their findings and (are) locked into timescales of their own''. Sir Robin Butler, head of the civil service, publicly acknowledged his dissatisfaction, adding that his own links with academics had not been as extensive or as productive as he could have wished.

These problems were reinforced by the hermetic, lifetime career patterns of Whitehall, so unlike the United States - where academics are regularly given temporary appointments in Washington, not just as policy analysts but as senior administrators and department heads - or Germany where many senior officials have a higher degree. Recent increases in outside appointments in British government are overdue and welcome.

The mismatch was exacerbated by the attitudes and values of government in the 1980s and 1990s - when "social science'' was considered an oxymoron, partisan think tanks and consultants replaced advisory committees and royal commissions, business was thought to have all the answers, and conviction supplanted analysis as the basis for policy.

Civil servants will have to unlearn the reflexes and redesign the consultative networks established over nearly 20 years. Talent available in the university system should be recognised, classified and exploited - at appropriate rates for the jobs done. Academics with public policy interests should be brought in on secondment. A think tank, whose staff should include some seconded academics, could give a lead in doing this.

An additional reason for government to reach out is that its own internal resources have been so greatly, and deliberately, depleted. As expenditure on external consultants has zoomed, policy posts have been cut at every level. The number of scientists working in government fell by 44 per cent between 1979 and 1995. Whitehall's capacity to think - as opposed to simply reacting to events and to ministerial demands - or do research has been massively reduced.

If a Labour government will have no more money to spend that its predecessor, its need for effective thinking will be all the greater. A reconstituted think tank could do some of this and help to harness the enthusiasm and talents of professional thinkers elsewhere.

William Plowden, now an independent consultant, was a lecturer at the London School of Economics 1965-71 and a member of the CPRS 1971-77.

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