The disempowered state

The disempowered state
The Scottish Review, by David Donnison

Eighteen months ago I was speaking at a seminar in Charles University, Prague. As our lively discussion drew to a close my chairman (a shrewd scholar who has done his stint at the London School of Economics and in American universities) posed a final killer question. ‘You have in Britain such a wonderful tradition of research on public health and social policy. Why are the policies so awful?’

My answer, I felt, was inadequate. Here I will try to do a little better. First by recalling how academics communicated with policy-makers when I first got into this act – in the 1950s and 60s. Then by describing today’s very different world. And finally by asking what we can learn from this comparison that may help Scotland to gain the most effective contributions to public debate from its academics.

How things were done in the years after the second world war

The past is truly another country, so I should remind you of the political setting in which we worked. Britain’s social structure, built on an old-fashioned, imperial, manufacturing economy, divided our people into well-marked social classes.

Nobody expected Attlee and his colleagues in the 1945 government to formulate a ‘vision’ for the nation. They were spokesmen for powerful movements which had done that long ago. Applied economists and social scientists (who are the kind of academics I am talking about) knew whose side they were on. Mostly Labour’s.

Only about 4% of each generation went to universities, most of which did no serious research. (Until the massive expansion that followed the Robbins Report, research on social policy was largely confined to the London School of Economics.) Most local authorities and central government departments had no research unit. The few there were, like the Road Research Laboratory and the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, were huge plants out in the Home Counties dealing with technical and scientific problems. Policy was decided in Whitehall with advice from civil servants who were pretty sceptical about academics. ‘On tap but not on top’ was their recurring phrase to describe the proper place for ‘experts’ of any kind.

So academics contributing to serious debate about questions of social, urban and public health policy worked in small and pretty marginal groups, usually with no special funding. But they included some very creative people who gained freedom and courage partly from the fact that virtually none of them had any formal training for their work. Richard Titmuss, the leading social policy academic, had no degree and first entered a university as a professor after writing a brilliant book about wartime social policies. His closest colleagues came from various disciplines – economics, anthropology, philosophy, sociology… And, having no research councils to fund their work, they did not have to satisfy senior academics in an established discipline before they could get started.

Since Victorian times, the classic arena for serious discussion of social problems had been royal commissions and committees of inquiry, set up by the government – sometimes with the intention of kicking the problem safely into the long grass. Academics might present evidence to them, serve on them or even chair them (Beveridge being the most famous example). But these committees did not recruit a team of researchers to help them.

There were other arenas in which academics gained a hearing. Those whose research produced interesting findings with policy implications could get a 1,400-word article into the Times or Guardian in about 10 days. From the 1960s they could get 2,500 words into New Society magazine, or a fuller treatment into a Penguin book – perhaps a ‘Penguin Special’ that could be published in a few weeks. The broadsheet ‘turnover’ articles, as they were called (in the centre pages alongside the leaders) were the most effective vehicle. ‘We don’t read the books you people write’ said a senior official to me. ‘But if you get a piece in the Times or the Guardian I must have answers ready for the minister before he comes in.’

A few ministers had a ‘policy advisor’ recruited from a university. These people worked only in the department responsible for the field in which they were expert (Brian Abel Smith in the Department of Health and Social Security was an outstanding example.) It was not until Harold Wilson came to No. 10 Downing Street that the prime minister had a significant policy unit there, largely staffed by academics.
These policy advisors had usually worked closely with the politicians they served when they were still in opposition. Some never held an official post; they just kept in touch with their politician friends and gave them what help they could. It was a small, informal, personal world, to which most people did not have access.

These relationships usually developed with the few ministers who had themselves been academics. Although few, they included Attlee, Wilson, Dalton, Crosland and Crossman. (‘Big beasts’ we’d now call them.) The academics and the ministers involved came mainly from the London School of Economics and Oxford. Since ministers might want to talk with an advisor at a few hours notice it was important to live and work close to their homes, to Whitehall and to parliament. The LSE was particularly handy for this purpose.

The strengths and weaknesses of this system

This system (if we can call it that) had some great strengths. First for the academics. As applied economic and social scientists of various kinds, their research usually brought them into close contact with people experiencing the problems which their policy prescriptions were intended to solve. They did field work, which made them ‘witnesses for the working class’ – a phrase coined by Peter Marris, who did that job beautifully.

Their findings were first presented in seminars and the professional journals where they had to go under the harrow of criticism from intelligent and expert colleagues before the authors moved on to formulate policy proposals.

Discussion in seminars or over coffee with colleagues from other disciplines, who probably had no interest in the policy debate, often informed their thinking. (The title of Titmuss’ most famous book, ‘The Gift Relationship’, on blood donors, was taken from conversations he had with anthropologists whose main research had been in Africa.)

If their work needed funding, the money came from charitable foundations that were independent of the state. Some of these foundations were prepared to back exploratory studies that enabled researchers to develop their work over a long period if results proved interesting. (The Joseph Rowntree Memorial Trust, as it was then called, with its sturdy Quaker trustees meeting not in London but in York, was an outstanding example.)

Committees of inquiry could not be launched without Treasury approval. That meant their studies were serious projects that might bring about changes in policy. Every interest group and public service professional operating in the committee’s field would give evidence – on paper and often in person. The more important contributions would be reported and critically discussed in the broadsheet papers. The committee would tour the country, visiting schools, housing, hospitals – whatever they were studying – and talking to their staff and those who used these services. They visited other European countries and the United States to learn how they did things. That meant that by the time they began formulating policy recommendations for ministers the wilder ideas had been wrung out of them. Stupid mistakes were avoided.

But this system had weaknesses too. It was very slow-moving. From start to finish, a committee of inquiry typically took three years to report – often longer. By that time the minister who set it up would certainly have moved on, and the party in power had probably changed. Then, as soon as they reported, the civil servant who served as their secretary – a crucial role – was moved to a completely different job and given so much work to do that he could not play any part in further discussion of their report. Thus a high proportion of these studies led nowhere. Which was often the intention of the politicians and civil servants involved.

A system which helped to prevent stupid mistakes also conferred great influence on the public service professions and other powerful interests. When drafting their recommendations committee members had to think how they could make them acceptable to the BMA, the NUT, the Church or whatever groups would have to implement them. They knew that as soon as a report was published they would have to explain it at the professional conferences of these bodies. If their colleagues felt they had betrayed the profession they would henceforth be excluded from all the posts they would most like to apply for.

The effects of these pressures can be illustrated from the academics’ own profession. When the Robbins committee was taking evidence for its great report on university expansion, well-informed academics urged them to recommend that the new universities should be placed in the centre of industrial cities (City College of New York was quoted as an example) where young people from families who had never been to a university could get to them by bus. As we know, the committee and those who implemented their recommendations placed most of them in picturesque but slightly decayed cathedral towns from which it was possible to get to London and back by rail in a day for professional and political meetings. The kinds of places that dons like to live in.

Shortly after, the proposal to set up an Open University, which was hotly resisted by senior figures in the academy, was a ball skilfully carried around the wings of the establishment – with the prime minister’s backing. It would never have made it through the slow-moving scrum of the conventional procedures of a public inquiry. The result, I believe, has become one of the very few things in British higher education that one can show with pride to a visiting foreigner.

How things are now

So much has changed since those days. Gone are most of the committees of inquiry and royal commissions. Margaret Thatcher had no time for these ponderous power bases of the public service professions. She and her closer friends were perfectly capable, she believed, of deciding what should be done. In this as in so much else, her successors have followed her lead.

This was part of a broader policy for disempowering civic leaders, local government, the public service professions and their unions. Academics too, particularly in the social sciences. Since many of the most prominent academics had made themselves the intellectual outriders of Thatcher’s political enemies in the Labour movement, that was not surprising.

Replacing the old system, we now have ‘think tank’, staffed by bright young people with political ambitions who hitch their stars to rising politicians in the party they favour. Some of them move on to advisor posts if these politicians gain office – perhaps even to become MPs. (David Miliband being one of many examples.) The Labour movement invented this system long ago, in the shape of the Fabian Society.
The media we once used to present research findings and policy proposals to the public are no longer available. The broadsheet papers are going through hard times and no longer have a budget for articles they do not themselves commission. New Society and the Penguin Specials have folded, and Penguin Books no longer publish our kind of work.

Instead, people communicate through their websites and blogs; which are great for prompt and punchy messages, but not for the discussion of complex research findings, for statistical analysis or serious discussion. Radio and television, which have now become more important disseminators of ideas than the newspapers, are more likely to offer a platform to bankers and business consultants than to academic economists; more likely to present ‘vox-pop’ interviews – always carefully ‘balanced’, no matter how decisive the findings of serious research – than to interview a social scientist.

Strengths and weaknesses of the present system

This system has some obvious strengths. Policy proposals move much faster from initial brainwave to ministers’ desks, enabling a politician who has a reforming spirit to get things done before being moved to another department or sacked. I guess the record of the think tanks in getting their proposals into law is more impressive than that of the old committees of inquiry.

The self-protective instinct of bureaucracies and professions which often fear change – the ‘Yes Minister’ syndrome – has less influence than it used to have. Which may or may not be an improvement.

For the system has weaknesses too. Arguments, evidence and assertions in the papers that reach ministers’ desks are less likely to be rooted in the lived experience and feelings of the people who will be most affected by the proposals presented. Their authors are less likely to have had real human beings in mind as they wrote. They did no fieldwork.

Their proposals are much less likely to have passed under the harrow of expert criticism from academic colleagues or experienced practitioners: people, for example, who know the frailty of the computer systems required to implement them.

The whole operation remains, for the United Kingdom, London-centred. It is still easier for young men with no family commitments than for others to participate in. It is part of a larger trend that enlarges the power of central government and disempowers local civic leaders.

Does this matter? We should recall that the most important policy innovations of the past – the building of the first district general hospitals and subsidised housing, the creation of comprehensive schools, the invention of foster care for children previously consigned to institutions of various kinds – all began in local government, usually in the teeth of opposition from central authorities. Where will such innovations come from in future?

I do not know the history which led to the introduction of council tax, ASBOs (anti-social behaviour orders) our obsession with tests for school children and other recent disasters of British public administration, but I fear that features of the system I have briefly described are part of that story; and I fear that the ‘bedroom tax’ and ‘universal credits’ will soon be added to that list – and for the same reasons.

What we need in Scotland

What would an ideal system, designed to get the most effective contributions to policy analysis and debate from academics, look like? It should start from a recognition that the universities can provide a privileged and valuable base for work of this kind: intellectually rigorous, with a tradition of good fieldwork, and great independence. If they operate as they should they are a precious resource for any nation.

But academics who offer research findings and policy recommendations to the world are involved in a game of power. Politicians and their officials are not eagerly awaiting their pearls of wisdom. They hope to use them; or to suppress them. So, bearing these realities in mind, the system we need should:

(a) Recognise that public authorities will not make good use of independent research unless they first have good research units of their own and employ staff capable of communicating on equal terms with their colleagues in the academy.

(b) We should encourage academics to engage in the exchange of knowledge with a wide variety of people in the world outside the academy. The researchers always have more to learn than to teach.

(c) Academics should do the necessary fieldwork so that they really know what they are talking about, and have the voices of real people likely to be affected by their proposals in their heads when preparing their recommendations.

(d) Research findings and policy proposals should be critically and expertly discussed in seminars and in appropriate journals before being presented to a wider public.

(e) Independent research foundations that fund policy-relevant research have an important part to play. Scotland, as a small peripheral country, is inevitably a bit short of these.

(f) Universities and research institutes should beware of becoming too heavily dependent on the state – and particularly on any one department of government.

(g) Other experts, in IT and in the relevant professions, should have opportunities to discuss research findings and policy proposals before they get too far.

(h) The state should select and commission academic contributors to policy analysis and development in ways that enable people from a wide variety of institutions with a variety of political standpoints to bid for the work. The selection should so far as possible be made by officials of our parliament, not by ministers or the officials most likely to have departmental interests at stake. (Scotland does rather well in this respect; and its geography helps too. Nearly all our universities are within easy reach of Holyrood.)

(i) The findings of academic work should be presented, not only to leading politicians of one party but to parliamentary committees in which all parties are represented. And, if legislation is to follow, the committee that discussed the research evidence should be the one to deal with the bill. (Again, good marks for Scotland.)

(j) Universities should remain ‘universal’ – meaning they include as many disciplines as they can responsibly handle, encourage constructive collaboration between them, and recognise and support both those whose work contributes to public debate, and those who do good work but are not interested in engaging in this kind of thing.

We must always bear in mind that the university specialisms which tend to separate researchers working on public health, urban studies, social policy and other fields are a product of their teaching requirements. They do not match the complexity of human needs or the needs of policy makers.