Experience-based policymaking

16 April 2013

The Institute for Government, in partnership with the Big Lottery Fund, has just launched ‘Connecting Policy with Practice’ a programme to help civil servants and voluntary sector practitioners to learn from each other’s experience. In this guest blog, Dr Jo Maybin explains why this could be an important source of learning for civil servants.

‘We do worry, and think a lot about where we get knowledge from.’ So confessed a senior civil servant at the Department of Health, when I spoke to him as the department was in the throes of controversy over the Health and Social Care Bill in 2011.

But this concern that civil servants are not using enough knowledge, or the right kinds of knowledge, when making policy is as old as the civil service itself. While the terminology may have changed, laments about the gap between models of evidence-informed policy-making and policy-making in practice, date back to the Haldane report of 1918 and beyond.

Despite this, every working day, civil servants are tasked with fleshing out policies on highly complex social and technical problems. If they are not using research evidence, what kinds of knowledge do they use to help them understand policy issues, and why?

To look for answers, I spent 18 months studying civil servants in the Department of Health’s policy and strategy directorate. I interviewed civil servants, observed them at work, sat in on their meetings, and read what they were reading and writing. Although individuals and teams displayed distinctive habits and preferences, there were some strong patterns to the ways they used different kinds of knowledge to get the job done.

While the civil servants did draw on more authoritative knowledge forms (such as evidence from large-scale and experimental research projects, cost-benefit analyses, and the writings of esteemed academics), these kinds of knowledge tended to be used for pragmatic purposes. They were used to persuade colleagues and stakeholders to support a particular policy idea, and to defend policy decisions already made against attacks in Parliament or the media.

When it came to developing their own understanding of policy issues, alternative forms of knowledge came to the fore. The civil servants particularly valued conversations with colleagues and selected outsiders, who could offer quick, synthesised and editorialised accounts of the main issues on a topic and help them to see problems from a variety of perspectives. Visiting front-line services and particular communities, either on professional visits or in their private lives, had an especially powerful impact on the civil servants, and the knowledge they gained from these experiences enjoyed a distinctive credibility. Seeing really is believing.

Another important way in which the civil servants sought to understand social phenomena was by creating simplified depictions of them. These policy-makers were continually engaged in categorising people and activities into grids and tables, and mapping out organisational structures and relationships in flow-charts and organograms. These techniques made it possible for the civil servants to think clearly about what are, in practice, messy and complex social phenomena, and made it easier to imagine their reform.

My research contributes to an understanding of why civil servants do things the way that they do and suggests an alternative focus for projects aimed at improving policy-making. Rather than obsessing over the gap between these forms of knowledge use, and models of evidence-based policymaking, improvement programmes could be rooted in, and complement, existing practice.

This could mean encouraging informal knowledge briefings to take place with a wider range of contacts than is customary at the moment. Civil servants could be supported to balance their analytic thinking with immersion in the messy complexity of policy issues as they are experienced on the ground.

That is why the IfG-BIG initiative is potentially valuable. Harnessing the power of first-hand experiences of places and services, and complementing these experiences with organised, critical discussions of the strengths and limitations of the intelligence gained, could prove a powerful and more sustainable model for injecting greater intelligence and insight into policymaking.

Further information

Jo C. Maybin is a Fellow in Health Policy at The King’s Fund. Her research on knowledge and policy-making was conducted for a PhD at the University of Edinburgh (2008-12) and will be published as: Knowledge and Knowing in Policy Work. A case study of civil servants in England's Department of Health (2013).

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