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The real world of evidence-informed policymaking


Extracts from Dominic Cummings wanted to rewire the British state, but he needed to change the thinking of those in charge by Sam Freedman (Read the full article)

“Lord Fulton’s report on the civil service, back in 1968, noted the lack of specialists, particularly those with scientific training, in key roles; the tendency to rely on generalists and the absence of modern project management techniques.”

“One reason the problems identified by Fulton are so endemic is the lack of incentive within the civil service to reform. But there’s another, bigger reason, that Cummings largely ignores: it suits the way politicians like to work. The standard ministerial tenure is around two years. A mere 1 in 10 of the junior ministers appointed in 2010 made it to the end of the Parliament. Given the limited time they have to make an impact the last thing politicians want is a machinery that is geared to long-term, expert-driven, and evidence-based policy making.”

“There’s a reason why all of Cummings’ treasured examples of high-performance either come from the American military (Manhattan Project; DARPA) or single party states like Singapore or China. They are typically long-term, highly technical programmes, undertaken with no or minimal public transparency, and with the role of politician limited to signing cheques. The absence of any major social reforms from his analysis of success is something of a warning sign that what he wants is not in fact possible, certainly within the confines of British democracy.”

“For all his demands for a scientific approach to government not a single policy either of us worked on at the DfE had been properly evaluated through, for example, a randomised control trial, because they were rolled out nationally without any piloting. In technocrat utopia a major policy like the introduction of academies would have been phased in such a way as to allow for evaluation. In the real-world huge amounts of capital (real and political) were spent arguing academies were the way forward, so the suggestion that they might not work couldn’t be countenanced.”

“Not only are policies typically driven by political imperatives rather than evidence but they’re not even internally coherent within departments, let alone between them. Again, this is not a function of civil service failure so much as incompatible ministerial agendas. “

“As Cummings has acknowledged in his blogs, this centralisation of power has not been matched by a growth in the administrative capacities of central government. Instead, increasingly, Whitehall has become reliant on procuring large private companies to provide services.”

Photo credit: Photo by Nick Kane on Unsplash

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