Blog post by Katie Cohen and Alasdair Neilson

Evidence, Expertise and Policy Making: Advice for Early-Career Civil Servants


Evidence, Expertise and Policy Making: Advice for Early-Career Civil Servants

20 July 2020, by Katie Cohen and Alasdair Neilson

The Covid-19 pandemic has illustrated the importance of fostering links between evidence, expertise and government. A key part of this process is policy professionals’ soliciting, collating and presenting expert advice. But how does this work? Previously, we synthesised learnings from a series of CSaP workshops for early-career researchers interested in contributing to public policy. In this second post, we’ll share some helpful guidance that Clare Moriarty, Philip Guildford, Alex Freeman, Graham Pendlebury and Elizabeth Surkovic shared with early-career civil servants on how evidence and expertise are sought and used by policy professionals.

Building connections

The first step towards building and maintaining connections is knowing your stakeholders. Former Director of Local Transport at the Department for Transport, Graham Pendlebury divided the important stakeholders into four categories:

  1. State actors - including government departments and agencies, regulators, international institutions, parliamentary committees, local devolved governments
  2. Private sector - including trade bodies, individual companies, individual entrepreneurs
  3. Professional Institutions - including national academies and chartered bodies (i.e. Royal Society), research universities and institutions
  4. Civil society groups

Academics and policymakers both tend towards siloing their respective work, creating 'a tribal space' and a sense of 'otherness'. Civil servants are good at solving problems but often like the room to solve problems by themselves, setting parameters and protecting the contours of government more than is always necessary. Identifying stakeholders relevant to your work and building links early in the process is often key to fostering trust and developing a more holistic understanding of a policy topic. The aim is to share problems, not just commission solutions.

Former DExEU Permanent Secretary Clare Moriarty also stressed the importance of going ‘countercultural’ when it is opportune. In other words, sometimes it can be beneficial to stray from the usual way of doing things even if it is riskier than following protocol precisely. While many civil servants early in their careers might find this daunting, she assured that using judgment to enhance personal problem solving abilities was key to her successful leadership.

Approaching conversations with academics

There is no one ‘academic’. Academics can assume different roles based on circumstance and context. It is important for civil servants to be aware of this, to figure out which “mode” academics are in. Philip Guildford, Director of Strategy and Operations at the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge, identified four potential modes, namely teachers, preachers, salespeople, and problem solvers. As teachers, academics can aid policy makers in understanding a particular aspect of their field as well as the broader research landscape. As preachers, academics may advocate for a particular solution to a policy problem or believe that a certain issue deserves greater attention from policymakers. Correspondingly, as a salesperson, an academic might believe that their research is best placed to solve the said issue. The problem solver is arguably the most useful mode for policy makers.

Academics, specifically engineers, can be fantastic problem solvers. Philip highlighted what he called the 'engineering mindset’: when presented with a challenge, engineers will try to avoid defeat at all costs. Other disciplines may want a wider range of discussions to weigh up different perspectives before making recommendations. Both, however, are incredibly useful and highly complementary. Indeed, as Elizabeth Surkovic, Head of Policy, Resilience and Emerging Technologies at The Royal Society, stated, while those from an engineering background might possess the ability to examine and test a hypothesis, humanities scholars are adept at critical analysis. It is important that these two different academic backgrounds 'hold each other up.’ With academics from other disciplines, you might need to set them up or nudge them into “problem solving mode”, as non-engineering disciplines tend to be more exploratory and less solutions-oriented.

Regardless of discipline, policy makers should strive to approach conversations empathetically. Both Clare and Elizabeth stressed that academics are more likely to be helpful if you’re interested and in ‘listening mode’. It is important to establish a two-way dialogue rather than a transactional encounter. One way to do this might be to work in a multidisciplinary team so that many perspectives are represented, and everyone involved needs to step into others’ shoes.

How to make sense of evidence and uncertainty

Once connections are established and two-way conversations have been had, how do you make sense of the evidence and associated uncertainties? Alex Freeman from the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication shared insights about the differences between informative and persuasive evidence communication. When collating and communicating evidence for public policy, the goal is to improve people’s understanding rather than frame information in order to persuade.

But avoiding persuasion as both a communicator or a receiver is harder than it may seem. For instance, a poster on the London Underground said 99% of young people in London are not seriously violent. This sounds like a pretty nice statistic - all but a small minority of young people are not seriously violent. However, when the percentage is converted to numbers, the situation looks slightly more worrying: 1% of young people being seriously violent is equivalent to 15,000 young people. While this framing is absolutely congruent with the facts, it would be more concerning to see on a poster. Recognizing how easily risk and uncertainty can be distorted is important to remember as you take in evidence from experts and relay to decision-makers. Researchers at the Winton Centre have found that presentation of risks in a fact box that focuses on balancing harms and benefits makes it much easier for people of all levels of education to understand.

Although it is easy to criticize the framing of certain problems, it is also difficult to be upfront about uncertainty. Risks and uncertainties have to be convertible into real-world decisions in public policy, which is often why they are not communicated accurately. Alex shared Baroness Onora O’Neil’s TED talk about trustworthiness, emphasizing the admiral goal of accessible, intelligible, usable and accessible information.

Concluding thoughts

Building connections with academics and making good use of evidence does not always lead to straightforward solutions. Take an example that Graham gave about aircraft noise at Heathrow Airport. Some wanted to introduce night flight prohibitions in 2003 as part of a White Paper on the environmental and public health impacts of the aviation sector. However, many very early morning arrivals in those days came from developing countries and so would have a knock-on effect on the departure times from those flights’ points of origin. So the question became whether to prioritize a good night sleep for the people of south London or people internationally, such as in Mumbai or Nairobi.

Although these ethical questions are less easily resolved by the addition of evidence, it is difficult to know exactly what the important questions are until you have made the necessary connections and shared knowledge effectively. Aiming to figure out what these important questions are and using them to evaluate policy problems is crucial. Building connections, having conversations with experts and striving to understand the evidence will be vital as we continue to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic and other pressing problems in the world.