Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Dr Ruth Levitt and William Solesbury, Visiting Senior Research Fellows, Dept of Political Economy, King’s College London (CSR 17)


1. Our evidence responds to the fifth question posed by the Committee, viz:

“If policy making is to be opened up to external organisations, what is the distinctive role of the Civil Service in the modern world?

What are the advantages and disadvantages of a permanent and impartial Civil Service compared to a spoils system with more political appointees?

Do the Government’s arrangements for “contestable” policy making exercises do enough to prevent bias and conflicts of interest as well as encouraging experts to take part?”

2. Our six points are:

2.1We challenge the government’s claim for the novelty of their proposals to “open up” policy making to outside experts; in our view this process has existed for many years.

2.2Many sources of external expertise can contribute to policy making; each source has strengths and weaknesses.

2.3Ministers need civil servants to manage external expertise contributions because political appointees could not do so adequately.

2.4The civil service should therefore develop its skills in identifying the required external expertise, securing and facilitating it, quality assuring it and reporting to ministers; the previous government’s Professional Skills for Government framework was an attempt in this direction.

2.5Future arrangements for “contestable” policy making must be consistent with the principles and practices enshrined in the many current “codes of practice” for external sources of expertise.

2.6A commitment to more open policy making must include concern for maintaining a healthy supply of external expertise.

About the Authors

3. Dr Ruth Levitt and William Solesbury recently completed a research project that critically examines the UK governments’use of “policy tsars”. The project developed an inventory of individual profiles and a typology of tsar appointments since 1997 and analysed tsars’ influence on policy and practice.1 The authors’ previous research includes Evidence for Accountability,2 which investigated the uses of evidence in audit, inspection and scrutiny, and a study of Outsiders in Whitehall.3 They submitted evidence to PASC’s earlier inquiry into Goats and Tsars.4

Outside experts and Whitehall

4. Governments have long sought advice on policy from outside experts. The recent claim by Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, that “For the first time ever ministers are directly commissioning policy advice from outside Whitehall, moving towards our goal of opening up policy making”5 is ill-informed, as was the implication in the remark by Sir Bob Kerslake, Head of the Civil Service, that “Open policy making must become the default in Government.”6 They were both echoing the Civil Service Plan’s similarly erroneous statement that “Whitehall has a virtual monopoly on policy development, which means that policy is often drawn up on the basis of too narrow a range of inputs…”7 Our own research, and observations by journalists and academics, have repeatedly recognised the growing influence of outside contributions to policy development in Whitehall from think tanks, consultants, lobbyists and various advisers.

5. Ministers and officials have good reasons for seeking to tap into the policy thinking of outside experts. The most obvious reason is a lack of suitable expertise in-house to deal with the wide range of complex modern policy issues that arise. There are subtler reasons too. Ministers themselves are nowadays much less likely, individually, to have had earlier working experience of business, public services or local politics, which would have given them some relevant professional or practical expertise on which to draw. Moreover, increasingly civil servants have been required to focus their efforts on policy delivery, to the possible neglect of their capability in policy development. Underpinning and influencing these factors is governments’ awareness that credible policies have to be evidentially based and reliably informed.

6. The expertise that outsiders contribute to Whitehall policy work is shaped by their own individual blends of knowledge, skills and experience. In earlier research we identified several channels through which outside expertise can contribute. Some routes involve formal appointment or procurement to undertake a specific assignment for the government. Others involve informal contact with experts or awareness of the work they do independently of government. The main sources of external expertise include:

agencies and NDPBs, who possess delegated authority to use their expertise in their field or sector eg Sport England;

statutory auditors and regulators eg Audit Commission, Ofsted, Competition Commission;

independent regulators eg Care Quality Commission, Press Complaints Commission;

conversations with between with ministers or officials and hand-picked experts eg lawyers, economists, journalists, scientists;

special advisers appointed by ministers;

policy tsars—hand picked from business, public service or academia to address pressing policy questions eg recent reviews of apprenticeships (Doug Richard) and equity markets (Professor John Kay);

consultants, researchers and think tanks, commissioned by departments or reporting independently;

judicial and other official inquiries eg the Leveson inquiry on press standards;

ad hoc or standing advisory committees of people with professional expertise eg the Migration Advisory Committee, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition;

lobbying by NGOs, professional or business organisations;

consultations eg on same-sex marriages (Home Office, 2010);

non-executive directors on government departments’ boards eg Lord Browne;

conferences and seminars organised by government (sometimes called “summits”) or convened independently; and

independent inquiries eg the Commission on the Future of Volunteering (2006–08, chair Rabbi Julia Neuberger).

7. Under the Coalition government two marked trends are noteworthy in the contributions from these sources of external expertise. Relative decline is evident for:

advisory committees (many axed in the “bonfire of the quangos” and few new ones appointed);

audits (note the abolition of the Audit Commission);

assignments undertaken by researchers and consultants (reduced as departmental budgets have been squeezed and procurement practices tightened up;8 the Cabinet Office’s Contestable Policy Fund is newly established); and

consultations (the government recently issued new “Consultation principles” specifying tighter ground rules).9

Relative growth is evident for

special advisers (81 appointed by Coalition Ministers at November 2012); and10

policy tsars (93 appointed between May 2010 and July 2012).11

Open Policy making: the Role of a Permanent and Impartial Civil Service

8. Opening up policy making to external individuals and organisations does not mean that a permanent civil service becomes redundant; nor does it follow (as the Committee’s question 5, first bullet point implies) that a “spoils system with more political appointees” would be advantageous in this context. More open policy making does require improvements in civil servants’ skills in managing policy development, on behalf of ministers, by drawing on diverse sources of expertise from inside and outside Whitehall. The essential steps for civil servants with this responsibility are:

analyse policy issues to identify the relevant range and types of expertise needed to address them;

locate where such expertise can be found;

consider, among the sources in para 5 above, the best way of tapping the appropriate expertise;

procure the expertise in accordance with transparent principles, standards and criteria;

facilitate and oversee the timely production of the advice;

quality assure the advice;

analyse and contextualise the advice with advice and evidence drawn from other relevant sources; and

make recommendations to ministers with regard to expert evidence.

All of this must be done competently and impartially if policy choices are to be evidence-based, defensible, effective and credible. Ministers themselves, and their political appointees, are not in a position to carry out that impartial, rigorous assessment.

9. In 2003 the civil service introduced a new competency framework called Professional Skills for Government (PSG). This recognised “analysis and use of evidence” as a core skill,12 which covered many of the tasks listed in para 7 above. It is not clear whether this PSG competency framework is still actively used as there is no reference to it in the recent Civil Service Reform Plan. Something like it is certainly needed.

10 Beyond acquiring and using relevant skills, the civil service also needs to learn from experience which sources of external expertise best suit which policy development purposes. The sources in para 5 above vary greatly in terms of whether they offer individuals’ expertise (eg a professional opinion, a conversation, a policy tsar’s report) or collective expertise (eg an advisory committee, an inquiry, consultation responses). They also vary in thoroughness and rigour, from opinion and comment to analysis and deliberation; in duration and timeliness, from an instant conversation to a few years’ work by an advisory committee or inquiry. Their resource costs vary too. The civil service has often presented itself as a “learning organisation”13 but we are not convinced that it learns systematically what works well and what does not in tapping different types of outside expertise.

Open Policy making: the Arrangements for “Contestable” Policy Making

11. To date only a single contract has been let under the new Contestable Policy Fund; it may not have gone as the Minister planned.14 The work of some types of external expert is governed by formal codes of practice and conduct, which are designed to maintain propriety and to maximise the effectiveness of their work and the behaviour of ministers, officials, advisers and experts. All arrangements for “contestable” policy making must be consistent with these practices and principles, which include:

Nolan principles on standards in public life;

code of conduct for ministers;

code of conduct for civil servants;

code of practice on special advisers (the subject of a recent PASC inquiry);

OCPA code on public appointments;

Chief Scientist’s guidelines on scientific advice;

rules for public procurement including that of research and consultancy (currently being examined in a separate PASC inquiry);

inquiry rules; and

consultation principles.

A notable absence from this list is any code relating to the appointment and management of policy tsars.

12. Regard for maintaining healthy sources of external expertise is essential too. This means recognising the diversity of relevant expertise on any given subject, providing for fair competition in its supply and contracting for its delivery on terms that enable experts to do their best.

January 2013

1 R Levitt and W Solesbury, Policy tsars: here to stay but more transparency needed, November 2012;

2 R Levitt, S Martin, S Nutley, W Solesbury, Evidence for accountability: using evidence in the audit, inspection and scrutiny of UK government, Nuffield Foundation, 2010.

3 R Levitt and W Solesbury, Evidence-informed policy: what difference do outsiders in Whitehall make? ESRC UK Centre for Evidence Based Policy and Practice, Working Paper 23, 2005.

4 House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee, Goats and Tsars: Ministerial and other appointments from outside Parliament, Eighth Report of Session 2009–10, HC 330, 2010, Ev44-48.

5 Cabinet Office, Looking abroad for the next steps in Civil Service Reform Programme, Press Notice CAB 073-12, 11 August 2012.

6 ibid.

7 HM Government, The Civil Service Reform Plan, June 2012, p 14.



10 Public Administration Select Committee, Sixth Report, Special advisers in the thick of it, October 2012, para 48.

11 R Levitt and W Solesbury (2012), op.cit., Table 4.

12 Other core skills were people management, financial management and programme and project management; see

13 For example: Cabinet Office, Performance management for the Senior Civil Service 2011/12. A guide for HR practitioners, March 2011, p 13; Gill Rider, Next Generation HR Planning, Civil Service, Human Resources, 20 July 2010.

14 The contract - to review accountability practices in other countries’ civil services - was announced in August 2012 with a two week period for people to register an interest, followed by another two weeks for the submission of proposals. These deadlines were then relaxed and those who had registered an interest but not submitted a proposal were encouraged to do so. The specification set a budget of £50K and a two month timetable for completing the work, which included interim reports and presentations to the minister. Budget and timetable were widely judged as inadequate. Some contractors with relevant expertise did not submit bids. The contract was awarded in September to the team led by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR). We were informed that IPPR renegotiated budget and timetable. A non-IPPR member associated with the successful bid has since resigned. At the time of writing delivery of the final report had not been announced.

Prepared 5th September 2013