19 June 2015

One of the flagship announcements in the 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan was the creation of a ministerial contestable policy fund “to give ministers access to external policy advice”. The first outing was the IPPR study on accountability – but the patchy information provided on use of the fund to date suggests it has been a damp squib – failing to improve either policy or transparency.

Set up of the Contestable Policy Fund

The Contestable Policy Fund (CPF) was designed to allow ministers to commission policy advice from external organisations “such as think tanks, academic or voluntary organisations”. Accessing the CPF allows departments to have the Cabinet Office contribute half the cost of their project through match funding. The available budget for matching was set at £500,000 a year.

Low demand

The first thing that is notable about the CPF from the information put out is how little demand there seems to have been for it. There have only been 17 projects commissioned. Only nine departments have used the fund at all – and an average of just less than twice each. The third round has attracted only two uses so far. DWP top the usage chart with three projects for which they were sole commissioner – and a joint project with the Department of Health. It is not clear what to make of this. One reading is that ministers are totally content with the advice that they get from their officials. Another is that, for the small amounts involved, it is just not worth going to the Cabinet Office for a 50% subsidy. The third possibility is simply that the majority of ministers are simply unaware of the fund.

Underspent

The knock on from this is that it looks as though the fund is dramatically underspent. There are very few contracts for which the value is readily accessible. But for those which they are the cost looks (with the large exception of the MoJ commission for a stocktake on youth offending in year three) the average contract value is £40-50,000. That implies a total value per year of some £300,000 – of which the Fund share would be half. This could be wrong if non-disclosed projects were much higher value than the average.

Subjects – less controversial and less political than expected

More interesting than simple numbers is a look at the subject matter on which ministers have sought external advice. If the idea of the Fund is to challenge the monopoly of Civil Service advice on ministerial priorities, it seems to be falling short. Most of the 17 projects commissioned so far are quite technical research pieces which would normally have been funded straight from departmental research budgets – or opportunities to fund lobby or support organisations to give a user centred view of policy – possibly useful inputs but normally the stuff of consultations. There are some exceptions. The accountability piece was high profile. The review of women in the Civil Service that fed into the Talent Action Plan exposed the dissatisfaction of women with lack of progress since 2010. The nearest thing to straight policy advice was a Demos piece on housing for older people. And DWP used the fund for a technology prize for “assisted living products for disabled people”. But other projects are the stuff of funding from normal departmental research budgets – whether it is DECC’s project to “understand green deal consent barriers” or DfE’s to improve maths skills in the vocational sector post-16 to the even more technical piece BIS commissioned on “research into the uses and limitations of metrics for performance measurement in decision-making by long-term investors”.

Suppliers – (a bit) more varied than you might expect

The idea that the CPF might be a new funding source for London-based policy think tanks has not materialised. Only IPPR and Demos of the big name Westminster facing think tanks have delivered CPF projects. Consultants have however done quite well with five projects of the 14 where the contractor is disclosed by the Cabinet Office, including the big MoJ Youth Offending evaluation which has been awarded to Deloitte – and there is a bigger representation of user support organisations and trade associations than might have been expected, reflecting the projects commissioned.

Impact

The CPF was part of a range of initiatives branded “open policy making”. So it might be hoped that its impact on policy was easy to discover. Unfortunately it is not. The Cabinet Office classifies a project’s “status” as either “complete”, “ongoing” or “closed” and then designates them as “published”– which may mean they are on a government website or the organisation’s own simply linking back to websites with details of the contract but no link to a published report. Only in a very few cases is it possible to find out how the report has impacted policy. The one that comes nearest to meeting expectation is DWP/DH’s joint project on psychological wellbeing at work where .gov.uk tells us that some of the proposals formed the basis for further consultation and are being piloted. For the “closed” technology prize, we are told the prize attracted 200 entries and there were 25 semi-finalists. No further news on that. This is a clear #transparencyfail.

Reboot or retire?

I have a confession to make. When we were writing Making Policy Better, Mike Hallsworth and I originally included a proposal for something that looked like the Contestable Policy Fund – a way ministers could access external advice if they were unhappy with the advice being proffered up by the official machine. That proposal did not make it through our internal review processes – as two ex-ministers judged it unnecessary. The reaction of their successors suggests they were right. Ditching the CPF (aka mainstreaming) looks like the most likely way forward. And yet there may still be a germ of a goodish idea in there. If ministers don’t think they are getting good advice from their civil servants, they should be allowed to go elsewhere. But in those cases the following conditions should be met:

  • The same advice should be commissioned internally as well as internally
  • There should be a commitment at the time of commission to publishing both pieces of advice on a set date, without any ministerial hold-ups or editorialising
  • There should then be a clear statement about how the advice has been taken forward into policy
  • And all this should be done in a transparent, standardised format so we can see what ministers are getting for their money.

That would probably be so resisted by ministers that it would achieve the same result as retiring the fund. But a bit of genuine and transparent policy contestability on important issues would be a worthwhile experiment in open policy making.

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