Matt Sanders: Case study

at Cabinet Office

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Special Adviser, Deputy Prime Minister (Education, Culture, Media and Sport, Cabinet Office)

Governments and public bodies don’t always come across to those who observe them as nimble organisations – but the everyday reality for ministers and those who advise them is that decisions often need to be taken quickly and to tight deadlines. Much of my work responds to the daily news cycle, and I need to deliver quick-fire advice on issues as they break, while staying focussed on the government’s broader objectives and policy development over the long term.

The value of the Policy Fellowship has therefore been the opportunity to step outside my daily routine and immerse fully into an academic conversation over a couple of days, exploring new ideas and challenging existing ones.

Like any large organisation, government departments can develop a corporate view of a problem, and it is part of my role to ensure this is properly tested and scrutinised. Having access to the freshest and most up-to-date new thinking at Cambridge, alongside my day-to-day work with other academics, practitioners and stakeholder organisations, has been hugely valuable in approaching problems from an alternative perspective.

The intensive nature of the process – with a focus on a just a few key questions – means that discussions can be tightly drawn and specific, narrowing in on the policy problem that we are seeking to solve. My Fellowship has focussed on social mobility within the UK education system, as we seek to eliminate socio-economic difference as the primary indicator of academic outcomes. This has involved thinking about the impact of formal structures, such as the interplay between early years and primary education and the design of new curricula and qualifications.

At CSaP's suggestion I also decided to look at critical external factors such as health, diet and physical activity, and my second visit to Cambridge followed the Deputy Prime Minister’s announcement of free school meals for all infant school children. I was able to talk to a number of academics about the detailed design of that policy, and their insights have had a direct impact on my work.

No policy making exists in a vacuum – good public policy is the product of wide-ranging conversations with a huge variety of people. It has been an enormous privilege and opportunity to engage with some of the world’s foremost thinkers in the fields I am involved in – and to take their ideas back to government as we continue the conversation.