Government Ministers form policy positions by seeking advice from officials and political advisors as well as taking into consideration other factors such as the party position, public mood or even media focus on a particular issue. With so many competing factors it is rare that that scientific evidence, where it even exists, trumps all else when final policy decisions are made. Timeframes can also be a barrier for academics to engage. Government departments often need very fast access to expertise and advice, whereas academics often operate over a longer time frame. Bridging this difference can be difficult to navigate but having an understanding of the different world that civil servants and other policy actors, including Ministers, operate in can help bridge the gap between academia and policy and begin the process of building constructive relationships.
To engage effectively with the UK Government it is first helpful to have a basic understanding of how Government works and the various ways different parts use and gather knowledge and scientific research expertise. Like the UK Parliament, Government does not use evidence in a uniform way. Understanding these differences will help you be more effective in your engagement. Here we set out a number of ways you can practically engage with the UK Government. We begin by first providing a brief explanation of how Government works.
How UK government works: the basics
In the UK, the Prime Minister leads the Government with the support of the Cabinet, made up of the senior members of government and Ministers. The Prime Minister is the leader of Her Majesty’s Government and is ultimately responsible for all policy and decisions. The Prime Minister also: oversees the operation of the Civil Service and government agencies; appoints members of the government and; is the principal government figure in the House of Commons. Government Ministers also have seats in Parliament but most of their work is undertaken in Government Departments.
Government Departments and their agencies are responsible for putting government policy into practice. Some Departments, like the Ministry of Defense, cover the whole UK. Other Departments don’t, for example the Department for Work and Pensions doesn’t cover Northern Ireland, because some aspects of Government are devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. You can find out more about the devolved administrations later on in this resource.
On a day to day basis the Civil Service does the practical and administrative work of Government. It is coordinated and managed by the Prime Minister, in their role as Minister for the Civil Service. Civil servants are politically impartial and accountable to the public. They work on policy development and implementation and consist of a wide range of professional roles – from communicators and analysts, to procurement managers and lawyers. Civil servants have an important role to play in offering objective advice on the feasibility and risks of proposed policies but, ultimately, they too work within the constraints of a pressured policy environment.
Scientific and engineering expertise in government policy making
Government Departments need rigorous, robust, relevant and timely evidence to design and deliver policies to achieve their objectives. The majority of Government Departments use a mixture of in-house analysts including statisticians, social researchers, economists, operational researchers, behavioural scientists and data scientists to supply their evidence requirements. In addition Government Departments have been exploiting new ways to diversify their external engagement. This means there has never been a more exciting time to engage and potentially influence Government particularly since the launch of the What Works Network set up explicitly to embed robust evidence at the heart of policy making and service delivery. The What Works Team in the Cabinet Office has also supported a project, led by the Government Office for Science, to encourage Government Departments to publish Areas of Research Interest. These statements set out the evidence gaps that are a priority for Government Departments. They are specifically targeted at academics to help them identify where their research could have direct impact on policy.
There have also been a range of initiatives across the What Works Network to increase the capacity of the civil service to use evidence and put it into practice. And the emphasis on Open Policy Making in the Civil Service just keeps growing. At its core Open Policy Making is about applying new analytical techniques, insights and digital tools so that policy is data driven and evidence based. The Policy Lab, based in the Cabinet Office, developed the open policymaking toolkit to help equip policymakers with new policy tools and techniques to support transparent evidence based policy making. You can follow their work on Twitter: @PolicyLabUK
Scientists also have respected routes into Government. The first Government Chief Scientific Adviser, (CSA), was appointed more than 50 years ago and now there is a network of 15 Government departmental CSAs who provide advice to permanent secretaries and senior officials. (Find out more about CSAs in the downloadable booklet below). In addition there are over seventy scientific advisory committees and councils, which provide advice on a range of issues, and almost 13,000 government science and engineering professionals working in Government – mostly in departments such as Government Office for Science and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
The Open Innovation Team, set up in the Cabinet Office in 2016, also aims to increase the use of academic expertise in Government policy making. Its initial trial period saw government officials connect with more than 500 academics and deliver almost 30 projects, covering some of the government’s key policy priorities. This included White Papers on mental health and online harm, as well as projects on economic growth and gender equality. The project will now be extended to 2022. The Team also help to organise secondments and facilitate networks between Government Departments and academia. Keep a close eye on their Twitter feed and blog for opportunities to engage.
Academics can also offer expertise in new methodologies. For example the What Works Team set up the Cross-Government Trial Advice Panel bringing together government officials with experience of running experimental trials with over 20 academics who have a particular expertise in experimental methods. A recent review of the Trial Advice Panel’s activities found that participating in panels has made academic research more policy relevant by enabling academic experts to understand the needs of decision makers and design research trials that have helped answer important questions.
In short there are many different routes and pathways for science and engineering academics to engage with and potentially influence Government policy making. What to do next? Find out about practical ways you can engage with the UK Government in the downloadable booklet below.
References on this page:
 The Rise of Experimental Government: Cross-Government Trial Advice Panel Update Report (November 2018)
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