The transformation of policy advisory systems: lessons from Whitehall

Patrick DiamondPatrick Diamond

Across the world over the last thirty years, the provision of policy advice to governments has been transformed as a diverse range of actors have been increasingly engaged in the policy-making process. Academic research needs to better understand the changes that have taken place by considering the shape of the new advisory systems, and the influence of different types of policy advice. In my latest research article in Policy & Politics, I seek to address this gap in understanding. The scholars Jonathan Craft and John Halligan developed the concept of a ‘policy advisory system’ to explain how policy advice is formulated by ‘interlocking actors’ beyond the formal bureaucracy of government. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) define policy advisory systems as the autonomous organisations – advisory bodies, think-tanks, policy labs, ‘what works’ centres, political advisers, committees of inquiry – that sustain government’s requirement for knowledge and expertise. Their growth has been observed particularly in the Anglophone countries – New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the UK.

Craft and Halligan point to five key shifts in policy-making that result: reforming the civil service to make Whitehall more permeable and receptive to external advice; recruiting political advisers who are sympathetic to the government’s ideological direction; hiring management consultants, particularly to re-engineer delivery processes in government; using outside experts and taskforces to break the civil service monopoly over policy advice; and finally, establishing special advisory institutions to set policy or advise Ministers, such as the National Institute for Clinical Excellence in the National Health Service; and the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the Bank of England.

One implication of the emergence of new advisory bodies is that the civil service is increasingly displaced from its traditional relationship of proximity to Ministers. Since the 1980s, successive governments have expressed the view that civil servants ought to be ‘managers’ driving the delivery of policy, rather than primarily policy advisers. Under the Thatcher, Blair and Cameron administrations, that aim appears to have been achieved. Between 2010 and 2016, the numbers employed in the UK civil service declined from approximately 470,000 to 380,000. There were reports in the Financial Times that officials in the post-2010 Coalition Government felt ‘significantly marginalised’ from ministerial policy-making Ministers encouraged their departments to seek advice from external bodies: think-tanks, charities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), civil society, and management consultancies. Ministers sought to create personal advisory networks of advisers they felt close to politically. The motivation was that they believed permanent officials were often inept and slow-moving. A former Minister, David Laws, complained the UK civil service was, ‘Too passive in the face of a general ministerial direction and therefore afraid of serving up things it didn’t think would be welcome’ [].

Nonetheless, despite these developments, there is certainly a danger of exaggerating change while endorsing implicitly the ‘golden age’ view that effective government prevails where, ‘civil servants advise and Ministers decide’. In many governments, including the UK, civil servants have retained a position of considerable influence, and prime ministers have usually backed away from imposing contentious reforms on the mandarin class.

Some observers are concerned that the emergence of new sources of advice and the displacement of permanent bureaucrats has made policy-making in Whitehall increasingly complex, prone to unpredictability, and exposed to the risk of policy blunders. There are studies that show Whitehall policy-making to be increasingly ‘anarchic’. Scholars uncover evidence of ‘organised chaos’ and turbulence with greater prevalence of policy ‘blunders’. One former official believes that in the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) under Michael Gove, for example: ‘The department was utterly dysfunctional but at the same time a huge public policy disaster was unfolding…The prison system pretty much collapsed…policy-making collapsed and the machine was gutted’. As a consequence, the Whitehall machinery was destabilised while, ‘the senior ranks of the civil service were massively demoralised’. It was believed that policy blunders had multiplied as a result.

That said, the incidence of fiascos and blunders may be no greater than in the past. We are more likely to be aware of such policy failures as the result of greater transparency and reforms such as Freedom of Information. There is little credible evidence that governments and policy-makers are actually less adept at tackling complex problems (rather the reverse). It may be that the challenges of governance are simply different in nature and scope. For that reason, the policy advisory systems of governments are likely to be reshaped further in the future.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Diamond, Patrick (2020) ‘Polycentric governance and policy advice: lessons from Whitehall policy advisory systems’, Policy & Politics, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1332/030557320X15870482509817

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Framing unpopular policies and creating policy winners: the role of heresthetics

Keeping expertise in its place: understanding arm’s-length bodies as boundary organisations

Narratives as tools for influencing policy change [Open Access]

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