IES VIEWPOINT: Policy learning and the role of research
1 Feb 2011
Nigel Meager, Director
Frequent staff movement in a civil service dominated by a generalist culture, coupled with the ‘policy pendulum’ driven by government changes in a first-past-the-post electoral system, are often held responsible for the chronic lack of institutional memory in the UK policy-making machine. This lack was highlighted by the public administration select committee earlier this year, which also noted that the incoming 1997 Labour Government adopted a ‘year zero mentality’ to policy-making. Often it seems that the policy machine fails to incorporate lessons from earlier policy-relevant research into new policy development. This is particularly true of evidence that predates the late 1990s, and does not show up in Google searches. While the research community is well able to supply the institutional memory lacking in government, this resource is rarely fully used.
Recent years have seen numerous examples of wheel-reinventing policy initiatives, with major policy reviews failing to incorporate previous experience and knowledge, and spending large sums reaching conclusions already known. To draw on IES’s own experience, and as Ewart Keep described in a paper for the Institute’s 40th anniversary, UK skills policy is littered with such examples. The influential 2006 Leitch Review, which underpins recent UK skills policy, identified many of the same problems and came up with many of the same policy proposals as research commissioned by the National Economic Development Council in the 1980s. IES was heavily involved in this earlier work but, as Keep points out, it seems that skills policy has failed to address the problems identified by that research, and has a persistent tendency to repeatedly uncover the same problems as if they were newly discovered.
It is too early to know whether the new government is adopting a similar scorched earth approach. There is, however, a risk that the combination of a fresh approach to policy-making, new ministerial teams and dramatic cost reduction will inhibit policy learning at a time when it could be most valuable. There are many examples of ‘new’ initiatives, which could clearly benefit from the lessons of policy-related research from the past. One is the growing emphasis in coalition policy on self-employment, and the plans to encourage and support the unemployed to start their own businesses under a ‘New Enterprise Allowance Scheme’. This has echoes of the Thatcher government’s much trumpeted ‘enterprise culture’, which saw rapidly growing self-employment. Unfortunately this fizzled out in a major way during the 1990s, as we discovered that many new self-employed were construction workers avoiding tax and national insurance, and that many start-ups supported among the unemployed by the original Enterprise Allowance Scheme turned out to be poorly-advised enterprises in low margin, crowded service sector markets with weak survival prospects. It is not clear that the ‘right’ people were steered to self-employment, or helped to survive by being given appropriate business skills. There is much to be learned from earlier experience of similar policies, in the UK and overseas, and the research evidence (contributed by IES and others) on their effectiveness. It is to be hoped that those responsible for policy design are actively incorporating these lessons, to increase the chances of the current surge in self-employment representing a sustainable outcome for the unemployed and others. The risk is that this evidence will be overlooked, or seen as ‘outdated’, in the rush to develop a gleaming new policy.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that policy learning takes place not only over time, but between countries. Again, research has a role to play here, not least because policies are notoriously hard to transfer between different national cultural, economic and institutional settings. A little-known but valuable tool in this regard is the peer review process in the EU’s ‘open method of co-ordination’, which aims to spread good practice in social and employment policy. This process brings together government officials and policy experts from EU member states to examine policies on the ground in individual countries and to explore their potential transferability in the light of evidence on their performance. IES was for many years involved in the team co-ordinating the labour market policy peer reviews in the EU’s Mutual Learning Programme, and it currently plays a similar role in the peer review process of social policies. It is to be hoped, in resource-constrained times, that the new UK government fully avails itself of this rather cost-effective methodology for learning from other countries what works in policy terms.
 Keep E (2008), From Competence and Competition to the Leitch Review. The utility of comparative analyses of skills and performance, IES Working Paper 17
 For an IES-led review of international evidence from the 1980s and 90s, see Meager N (1996), ‘Self-Employment as an alternative to dependent employment for the unemployed’, in Schmid G, O’Reilly J, Schömann K (eds), International Handbook of Labour Market Policy and Evaluation, Edward Elgar