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UK Politics

Outsourcing policy ideas could be a bad idea, say civil servants


Ministerial plans to commission think-tanks and academics to come up with new policies will lead to bad decisions and “unchallenged bias” in Government, senior civil servants have warned.

Under proposals initiated by the Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude ministers will be able to turn to bodies outside of Whitehall to draw up detailed policy recommendations.

The move has been publicly backed by the head of the Civil Service Sir Bob Kerslake but now a detailed poll of over 1,000 civil servants carried out by the respected Whitehall publication Civil Service World, has revealed deep unease about the plan.

Only eight per cent of those asked backed the idea without reservations while over half said it was a flawed idea with significant drawbacks.

Even among those who broadly supported the proposal around half believed that ministers would only seek to commission policy advice from think tanks or academics known to already share their political views.

A further 30 per cent warned that external policy-makers would not understand the operation of government, the requirements of law or the complexity of public sector business processes.

There were also concerns that external policy-makers could be subject to “conflicts of interest” that would render their conclusions “suspect or unreliable”.

The wide-ranging survey also revealed that many civil servants are frustrated about the very bureaucracy that they are accused of presiding over.

When asked their opinion of official “impact assessments” designed to establish the risk and benefit of a particular policy most civil servants questioned said that they created “a lot of work” and “rarely produced valuable data improving the quality of policy”.

Responding to the concerns Sir Jeremy Heywood admitted that the speed of policy development was a concern.

“I know an awful lot of civil servants are frustrated about the speed at which policy-making is able to take place,” he said. “We tie ourselves up in bureaucratic hoops.”

However, he added that the Government had “already taken significant steps to streamline impact assessments”.

On outsourcing he said the concerns were “significantly exaggerated” and would “not lead to less challenging policy advice”.

“If anything, it’s the other way around,” he said. “We want to broaden the range of advice that ministers have access to and increase the degree of contestability.”

But Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA trade union which represents senior civil servants, said that the fears were justified, because outside organisations were not politically neutral.

“It’s not that these organisations have no place in policy advice, it’s that [when outsourcing the policy-making process] you’re giving them control,” he said.

Jill Rutter, from the independent Government think-tank the Institute for Government added that handing a single tender to one organisation is a “very limited model”.

She added: “There is the question: are you pre-judging the answer when you’re commissioning?”

Read the full report HERE