31 January 2018

If it wants to gain legitimacy with the public, the Government must show how it uses evidence in policy making, says Dr Catherine Haddon.

A new report by Sense About Science, produced with support from the Institute for Government, finds that government departments can still do a lot better in showing their workings when it comes to policy development.

The report took a sample of policies in 12 departments to judge how easy it was for outsiders – whether Parliament, the public or academics – to understand why the Government chose the policy and what evidence had informed its decision. Some departments scored very high on transparency demonstrating that good, clear evidence is possible and persuasive.

But performance was uneven and ministers and senior officials should take note of some of the useful lessons this review raised.

Transparent evidence still leaves room for politics and values

Reviewers scored policies higher if the limits of the evidence was made apparent. Some departments were quite clear that values drove aspects of their policy, and reviewers recognised this was an important part of policy debate. For example, the Home Office’s re-employment of senior fire officers focused on closing a loophole in regulations on the principle of fairness, whether or not there was evidence that the loophole was being exploited.

Evidence still needs a clear and readable document

The policies that scored well were not necessarily long, complex studies but clear and succinct reports with subheadings and signposts for readers that linked the arguments of the policy with the evidence and values behind it. The reviewers gave the Home Office’s new fees for firearms licences some of the highest marks for being clear and specific. 

Government is most transparent about the evidence it uses to diagnose problems

The highest scores were given for the process of diagnosing problems and few policies scored zero for diagnosis. This suggests that departments are fairly good at putting evidence to use in saying why a policy problem exists and what the problem might be. But the fact that this scored highest also shows it is where most of the effort goes. 

Government is least transparent on how it plans to test and evaluate policy 

Making the case for why you need to do something is not the same as explaining what you will do to check if it works. Policies scored the lowest marks for their use of evidence in testing and evaluation. This could mean that relatively less effort still goes into policy follow up. More can be done to make sure departments are thinking through this stage and working with What Works centres and academics to devise methods of evaluation.

Heads of policy still need to find a way to present policy more clearly on GOV.UK 

There is wide variation in how departments present new policy using the GOV.UK platform. Some departments put all relevant documents together on a webpage and linked to them throughout the policy documents. Others were published simply as press releases and unsurprisingly received lower scores for their lack of explanation of the evidence behind the policy.

Further information

The report uses the Evidence Transparency Framework developed by the Institute for Government, Sense About Science and the Alliance for Useful Evidence. It looked at six to eight policies from 12 UK government departments as of July 2017: Cabinet Office; Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; Department for Communities and Local Government; Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport; Department for Education; Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Department for Transport; Department for Work and Pensions; Department of Health; HM Treasury; Home Office; and Ministry of Justice.