Reflections on Steph Parker’s webinar: Making government policy: what does a Policy Professional do?

23 November, 2020

Sam Hampton

Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford

Reading time: 6 minutes

Rare insights into behind-the-scenes processes and protocols reassured guest author Sam Hampton that government policies are well-considered.

Although the activities of government and parliament are under constant scrutiny through the news media, the workings of the 400k+ strong civil service tend to be hidden from view. Steph Parker’s talk provided some rare insights into the processes and protocols that operate behind the scenes of government departments, and my overall response was to be reassured by the rigour and scrutiny under which government policies are developed.

Steph is Head of Business Strategy for Energy Efficiency and Local at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. She explained how as a policy professional (one of 28 civil service professions, opens in a new tab), her role involves gathering and evaluating evidence, developing business cases for investment, and presenting these to Ministers clearly, persuasively and succinctly.

It was refreshing to hear that the question of ‘so what’ featured prominently in the policy making process. Steph explained that when considering the case for new government intervention, she and colleagues asked themselves fundamental questions such as ‘what is the nature of this problem?’, ‘who has vested interests?’ and ‘should the government intervene?’ These reminded me of the kinds of questions we ask our Undergraduate and Masters students to reflect on: about power, equity and the relationship between state, the market and the individual. It was pleasing to hear that civil servants also engage in critical thinking to question the assumptions and conventions of government.

Perhaps most relevant to the research community was the part of the webinar where Steph described how evidence is used in the policy cycle. Their critical lens extended to evaluating the source and reliability of evidence, and she acknowledged that the availability of information was uneven, with more evidence available for potential solutions than there was for fully identifying the problem from multiple perspectives.

Whilst it is now common for Ministers to claim that all policies are ‘evidence-based’, this refrain hides significant detail which has been much scrutinised in the social sciences. In energy research for instance, authors have highlighted how neoliberal ideology [1] underpins much of contemporary policy making, influencing assumptions about individual motivation and behaviour [2], and defining what should and should not be in scope for government intervention [3]. In my own PhD research, I became interested in how different kinds of evidence and theory gained traction in government. Noting the success of behavioural economics (or ‘nudge’) in influencing UK government policy since 2010, I co-authored a paper with a Government Social Researcher which explored how alternative approaches (in this case, social practice theory), might do more to inform policy-making on energy and environmental issues [4]. Like Steph, the civil servants we interviewed were candid about the limitations of available evidence, and the fact that some kinds of evidence (quantitative, economic) and methods (randomised control-trials, cost-benefit) attracted most attention in government. They were aware, however, of the need to incorporate qualitative insights into energy and climate governance, particularly as some of the more challenging objectives (decarbonising heat, travel reduction) would require changes to social practices and norms.

Evaluation

Steph’s comments on evaluation were particularly pertinent to me, as I am currently involved in evaluating a major energy innovation programme (opens in a new tab) and have an article under review which argues that the climate emergency demands new approaches to energy policy evaluation [5]. She explained that the pressure to focus financial resources on developing new interventions meant that evaluations of previous policies were not always conducted as rigorously or extensively as would be ideal. Our paper contends that rapid methods of evaluation need not sacrifice rigour, and that ‘less haste more speed’ is crucial for maximising the effective use of public money and accelerating the transition to net-zero.

Engagement and knowledge exchange

It was great to see over 130 participants on the webinar. There were dozens of questions raised for Steph, showing the enthusiasm amongst the energy research community for engaging with policy professionals. Just as Steph explained that policy-makers compete for money, resources and the attention of Ministers, she emphasised her limited capacity for reading extensive research reports and journal articles. She urged researchers to produce succinct summaries and use conventional channels such as consultations and calls for evidence to maximise the chances of influencing the policy cycle. Steph also said however, that finding opportunities to be introduced to senior staff and decision-makers can be helpful, and that trust and relationships are crucial. It reminded me of Paul Cairney’s paper on policy entrepreneurship (opens in a new tab), which highlights how individuals can gain influence by closely attending to the motives of decision-makers and choosing their moments to act.

One commenter suggested that convening workshops or seminars and inviting selected civil servants is another tool for knowledge exchange. Indeed, this webinar was one such example. In my own experience, it is these (pre-COVID) events that I have found to be most useful for engaging with the policy community. The co-authored paper mentioned above was initiated by a knowledge-exchange day held between my research group in the Environmental Change Institute and Government Social Researchers at DECC in 2016. I have also had some success by boldly inviting myself to give a talk in Whitehall!

These informal ways of engaging with policy professionals raise important questions about fairness, equity and privilege. I have no doubt, for instance, that my status as an Oxford-educated, white, male played no small part in giving me the confidence to approach to a civil servant to share my research findings, as well as in in how they may have been received. Achieving influence with policy-makers is not just about having skills of persuasion, but is enabled (and inhibited) by social and cultural status. I was reassured by the degree of rigour, scrutiny and critical reflection built into the formal policy-making processes described by Steph, but perhaps both researchers and civil servants need to challenge one another to examine the dynamics at play in the less visible aspects of the research-policy interface.

References

[1] Himley, M. 2008. Geographies of environmental governance: the nexus of nature and neoliberalism. Geography Compass, 2: 433–451. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-8198.2008.00094.x (opens in a new tab)

[2] Shove, E. 2012. Putting practice into policy: reconfiguring questions of consumption and climate change. Contemporary Social Science, 9: 415–429. doi: 10.1080/21582041.2012.692484 (opens in a new tab)

[3] Jones, R., Pykett, J. and Whitehead, M. 2011. Governing temptation: Changing behaviour in an age of libertarian paternalism. Progress in Human Geography, 35: 483–501. doi: 10.1177/0309132510385741 (opens in a new tab)

[4] Hampton, S. and Adams, R. 2018. Behavioural economics vs social practice theory: Perspectives from inside the United Kingdom government. Energy Research & Social Science, 46: 214–224. doi: 10.1016/j.erss.2018.07.023 (opens in a new tab)

[5] Hampton, S., Fawcett, T., Rosenow, J., Michaelis, C. and Mayne, R. 2020. Evaluation in an Emergency: assessing the impact of energy policy amidst the climate crisis. Under review.

Banner photo credit: Andrew Buchanan on Unsplash

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