Ivor Crewe on why Whitehall blows it again and again

New head of Academy of Social Sciences probed government mistakes and found no shortage of data

January 2, 2014

Source: Getty

A long-serving vice-chancellor of the University of Essex and former president of Universities UK, Sir Ivor Crewe is now master of University College, Oxford, and has just been named president of the Academy of Social Sciences. Yet throughout his time as a university leader he has been “absolutely determined to have a research project”, with his latest work exploring the “blunders” of post-war British governments. All this makes him exceptionally well placed to cast a beady eye on recent higher education policy.

To examine the general issue of public policy failures, he joined forces with Anthony King, professor of government at Essex, on an Economic and Social Research Council-funded project that led to their recent book, The Blunders of Our Governments.

They specifically excluded scandals, reasonable judgement calls that turned out to be wrong, initiatives that made a positive but disappointingly modest impact, and anything to do with foreign policy.

So the “blunders” that he and King studied, Crewe says, were restricted to “very serious failures” that “don’t achieve what they set out to achieve and often achieve the opposite, waste a large amount of public money and/or cause a very significant amount of human distress”.

Yet even confining their investigation to matters that met these demanding criteria, the authors had no shortage of material and “don’t feel we have said the last word on the policy performance of UK governments. We want to take account of the coalition government and have bulging filing cabinets of Public Accounts Committee and National Audit Office reports.”

While stressing the difficulty of making comparisons, Crewe says he suspects that things have “probably got worse in the past 30 years”. He also sees an “impressionistic” case that “some comparable democracies don’t make as many mistakes, including many of the northern European democracies and some smaller ones such as Switzerland”.

Revolving-door policies’ pitfalls

Among the dysfunctional features of the UK system, in Crewe’s view, is “the very high turnaround of ministers and senior officials, so the incentives to think long term and get things right aren’t there, while the incentives to make an impression as quickly as possible, to catch the prime minister’s eye as a means to further promotion, are very strong”. The failure of governments to take account of serious research can be blamed both on “the speed with which impatient ministers want to design and implement major policies” and on prior ideological commitments.

The Child Support Agency is a case in point. While a diverse coalition of “fiscal conservatives and feminists, moral authoritarians and welfare champions” lined up behind “the idea that errant fathers should be made to pay”, Crewe says, a few social scientists were among the lone voices “warning that it carried a lot of risks of not working, because they understood how poor families make decisions about how to handle the break-up of a family and find maintenance for children. This was simply waved aside, dismissed as the special pleading of interest groups with an agenda.”

So how do these issues play out in relation to higher education?

Although he is on record as supporting student tuition fees, Crewe fears that the reforms introduced by the coalition government “will turn out to be a blunder in the sense that the purpose of the policy was to save the taxpayer money, to decrease the deficit, and there’s increasing evidence that it’s not going to save the taxpayer money”.

He adds that it was “entirely predictable” that virtually all English universities would opt to put their fees at the same level, given that higher education is a “prestige good”, where “what partly matters is the prestige and status of the university, and one of the ways you signal that is by the price”.

Poll tax demonstrators

On the recent lifting of the cap on student numbers, Crewe worries that “until there are more convincing answers than we’ve had so far, one naturally has some suspicion that it will be paid for either by reducing expenditure for research, reducing public funding of access initiatives or detrimental changes to the terms of the loans”.

Although he is opposed to all these options for making the figures add up, Crewe says he would support a (politically unlikely) “gradual raising of the cap on fees. I’m not in favour of another massive hike, but they should be index-linked and there is a case for loosening the cap, for example allowing universities to increase their fees each year by inflation plus a small x per cent each. That would provide some predictability and give all those who have to find the money time to adjust.”

And how can the Academy of Social Sciences make progress on its goal of bringing research more effectively into governmental decision-making?

“It’s still the case”, responds Crewe, “that most departments prefer to go to the large [private] consultancies and take advice from them. They will produce slick reports to whatever deadline the government asks. Generally academic social science research is of a higher quality, but it’s also more cautious, more nuanced, and takes longer to produce.

“A lot of [academic] research is written in unnecessarily technical language and appears in very obscure journals. It’s often based on old, rather than very fresh, data.”

Achieving high impact

If they hope to have more impact, Crewe says, academics must take better account of the needs of those who “have to make decisions quickly, and have to be able to understand the practical, operational implications of the research they are reading”.

Yet he also sees a number of promising signs, both in initiatives developed by the AcSS itself and in the increasing willingness of academics to embrace social media, from Twitter to frequently updated multi-authored platforms such as the London School of Economics’ British Politics and Policy blog. In the longer term, he would like to see a “chief social scientist” in government alongside the chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer.

Meanwhile, asked about the storm surrounding UUK’s recent advice relating to gender segregation at events organised by Islamic groups, Crewe notes that although he has not read the document, his “strictly personal” view is that “if societies and organisations want to segregate audiences on any basis, this should be arranged in private premises and not on university campuses”.

Yet in defence of UUK, he also stresses the continuing importance of “a single body which can represent all universities on the majority of issues. If it didn’t, it would be very much easier for governments who wished to, to divide and rule.”


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