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Policymakers and academics

The head of the Policy Profession of the UK Civil Service reflects on building mutual understanding with academics
Vision Politics and Society Policymakers and academics

There is already a strong foundation for civil servants and academics to work together for the betterment of society. The International Civil Service Effectiveness Index shows that the UK has the best civil service in the world, with 19,000 policy professionals, while also accommodating some of the best universities in the world. Pursing the full potential of this relationship is a priority for better policy creation.

A 2014 survey of senior civil servants captured our ambition for “Sir Humphrey and the Professors” to work collaboratively. This was followed in 2018 with a Policy Profession project exploring how we better connect policymakers to academics. The main finding was that we need to improve our mutual understanding. There are pockets where this works, but we are increasing efforts across the Civil Service. The importance of working with many sources of evidence is emphasised in our policy Professional Standards.

A priority is to increase the use of university education for policy professionals both centrally (for example, our Executive Master in Public Policy with LSE) and departmentally (for example, our Masters in Health Policy with Imperial College London).

These provide a means of ongoing connection for individuals and institutions. However, aligning research to policy development and decision-making remains a challenge, which is why publishing Areas of Research Interest (ARIs) and the Research Excellence Framework, whereby the impact that research has upon public policy is rewarded, are important to Government.

The development of policy institutes by universities enables strong connections and I am keen to support initiatives like the Universities Policy Engagement Network. Another initiative is the Cambridge Science and Policy scheme which has facilitated more than 9,000 meetings between researchers and policy makers. In addition, the government’s Open Innovation Team takes PhD students on placements to tackle tricky policy challenges.

In an article in Nature, colleagues and I outlined the necessity of accurate, concise and unbiased synthesis of evidence for policymaking.

The four principles that enable evidence synthesis to result in better policy are:

  • inclusive
  • rigorous
  • transparent
  • accessible
Good evidence presented before a decision is more valuable than a perfect synthesis arriving too late
Sir Chris Wormald

But just as important is timing. Good evidence presented before a decision is more valuable than a perfect synthesis arriving too late.

Whilst it is important we support this work centrally, it is important that individual departments build connections relevant to their own policy areas. For example, in my own department, we have a group that is responsible for research and innovation to maximise health and economic gain. Likewise, our Strategy Committee and Research Priorities Board identifies policy research questions.

Our National Institute for Health Research conducts research into health and care, and our Policy Research Units are academic-led consortia providing stable, high-quality long-term research resources, rapid-response work as policy evolves, and access to expertise. These units shape policies, with examples including obesity and mental health.

Moreover, NICE is a What Works centre providing synthesis of impactful research, and we benefit from a range of active and respected think tanks, including Health Foundation, King’s Fund and Nuffield Trust working with us. We also have informal relationships with academics built through learning shared in the department, for example through lunchtime seminars, policy fellowships and staff interchange, as well as formal learning with our masters in health policy.

In summary, we want to make the most of the knowledge across our public services. What matters is all of us being open, making our work accessible and continuing to build mutual understanding.

Sir Chris Wormald

Sir Chris Wormald is Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health and Social Care, and head of the UK Civil Service's Policy Profession, which develops and proposes courses of action to help meet government priorities and ministerial objectives.

Vision magazine front cover - Issue 4, Autumn 2019

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