50 years on from IES' foundation and some Directorial reflections

Newsletter articles

21 Aug 2018

Employment Studies Issue 27

Nigel MeagerNigel Meager, Institute Director

2018 marks the 50th year since the Institute’s foundation. As it happens, it is also the year in which I retire from my role as IES Director (although I plan to remain active in research post-retirement). Naturally, these events prompt reflections on how things have (or haven’t) changed over the years.

My time at IES doesn’t quite stretch back to 1968, but I started at the Institute in 1984, and apart from a couple of years at a German research institute, I’ve been here ever since. My first week at IES in the depths of the Thatcher recession was also the beginning of the era-defining miners’ strike.

Two statistics highlight just how different the employment world was in those days. In 1984, over 27 million working days were lost to strike action (largely due to the miners’ strike and associated actions); in 2017, the most recent complete year, the figure was 276,000 (a hundred-fold difference)[1]. When I joined IES in the second quarter of 1984, the official unemployment rate peaked at 11.9 per cent, a modern historical high; as I’m about to retire, in the first quarter of 2018, at 4.2 per cent it’s at more or less at a modern historical low.

It would be satisfying if these statistical changes represented as dramatic an improvement in industrial relations and labour market efficiency in the real world as a superficial reading might suggest. And it would be even more satisfying to be able to claim that IES' rigorous research contributions to evidence-based policy-making played a role in such improvements. Alas, things don’t work like that.

As research by IES and others amply demonstrates, a more mixed picture lies beneath the aggregate statistics: falling strike activity at least partly reflects the shifting workplace power balance and the decline in union membership and coverage, and not the disappearance of conflict and discontent (much of which now finds individualised rather than collective outlets). Equally the apparently positive unemployment figures tell only part of a story which also includes a persistent squeeze in real wages, rising in-work poverty, high levels of under-employment, and a growing segment of precarious forms of work.

When it comes to research impact, a key frustration of my 30-plus years in policy-facing research is how little research influences policy. Any such influence tends to be slow and diffuse, operating through bodies of work influencing the climate of policy decisions over a long period, rather than through specific studies or evaluations affecting relevant policies in a timely manner. That’s not to say that things haven’t improved; in many ways they certainly have. Looking back at studies conducted in the 1970s and 1980s, the rigour and sophistication of the research methodologies used have since increased dramatically. Thus we see: a much greater variety of research tools available (and the development of effective strategies of mixed-methods approaches where appropriate); the application of approaches to policy evaluation (including randomised control trials) previously found only in medical sciences; and emergent new approaches including ‘big data’ analysis and the extensive and creative use of administrative and secondary data (allowing far greater cost-effectiveness than some traditional primary research strategies). Additionally, the context in which the studies are commissioned by policymakers and the seriousness with which the results are taken by civil servants, and what we might call the ‘policy-scrutiny infrastructure’ (select committees, National Audit Office, regulatory bodies of various types and the media more generally) definitely feel different.

While one can question the extent to which policymakers really act on research, it is clear that since the massive expansion of research commissioning for evidence-based policy under the post-1997 Labour government, the notions that policy should ideally be based on evidence, and that all major policies should be evaluated by skilled researchers using state-of-the art methods and the results fed into subsequent policies, are well established in Whitehall.

I’ve always argued against the use of anecdotal evidence, but I will use the excuse of this being my valedictory comment piece for Employment Studies to finish with a personal anecdote illustrating, for me, the extent to which this world has changed. It relates to a traumatic incident in my early IES career. A junior minister in the then Department for Employment took it upon himself to insist on personally interrogating all research contractors commissioned by the Department.

My colleague John Atkinson and I, having recently finished a study looking at the factors influencing employer participation in a current government programme for the unemployed, were duly summoned to the minister’s office. To the great embarrassment of the civil servant organising the meeting, the minister proceeded to shout at and harangue us about what a disgraceful waste of public money this ‘so-called research’ was, and how if he really wanted to know how employers thought and behaved, he would simply need to ‘pop along and ask a few chaps in the Rotary club’ in his local constituency. In vain did we interrupt his red-faced diatribe with reasoned explanations of sampling, respondent anonymity, independent interviewers, the importance of non-leading questions, social desirability bias and the like. The uncomfortable meeting was, thankfully, eventually brought to close when the minister realised that a fountain pen had leaked in his jacket pocket and that a large black stain was slowly spreading across the front of his monogrammed shirt (necessitating a member of his private office contacting his Jermyn Street shirt-maker for an urgent replacement).

A tale of the times in many ways, but it is close to impossible to imagine a minister, of any ideological persuasion, taking such a stance towards the application of research to policy today.

[1] Clegg R (2018), ‘Labour disputes in the UK: 2017’, Office for National Statistics [Online]. Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/workplacedisputesandworkingconditions/articles/labourdisputes/2017 [Accessed: 13 July 2018]