Policy advice 'next in line to be privatised'

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Public Policy Editor

Ministers are likely to turn away from civil servants to the private sector for policy advice as the next big change to central government, Rod Rhodes, Professor of Politics at Newcastle University, said yesterday at the launch of the biggest academic research programme into how British government has changed since 1945.

The Conservatives will probably have to be re-elected before this next stage in privatisation takes place, Professor Rhodes, the programme's research director, said. But the signs were clear that the next step in government moves to cut the civil service is likely to be contracting out policy advice.

Such advice has long been the preserve of the senior civil service. But the opening up of permanent secretary posts to outside competition - a move that has seen the heads of nine departments and agencies come from backgrounds other than the civil service - is a first step towards contracting out policy advice, he said.

The move could make government more transparent, he argued, citing as existing examples the way academics can now use the Treasury's economic model and the existence of the "six wise men" who advise the Chancellor.

"If you have three or four people or groups of people from outside advising ministers, it will be much more difficult to keep the lid on what advice is being given," he said.

He was speaking before the launch by the Economic and Social Research Council of its pounds 1.5m four-year programme which will track and analyse the development of British government since the Second World War. The civil service is pledged to co-operate with the programme and the Government is contributing pounds 200,000 to two of the 23 projects.

Ben Pimlott, chair of the project's steering committee, said he hoped the programme marked "a permanent change" to an American-style relationship between academics and Whitehall in which there would be more mutual trust and respect between the two sides.

In the past, outside advice often came from royal commissions and similar bodies - a process Baroness Thatcher largely killed off.

A Labour victory, Professor Rhodes suggested, might mean more of a return to the royal commission model. Tony Blair has already promised one on the funding of long-term care, and Professor Rhodes suggested, another might be set up as a way of defusing the issue of regional government in England.

Since 1945, Professor Rhodes said, British government "has changed dramatically. We are inventing new forms of governance and we must develop new ways of understanding the changes."