by Naomi Eisenstadt
24th July 2020

Academics sometimes have difficulty communicating their research findings to policy makers in ways that influence the direction of policy. This is not to say it cannot be done.

One excellent example from the Department of Education at the University of Oxford is the seminal Effective Provision of Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE) study that was commissioned by a Conservative government in 1996 after an open tender process. Its main findings were published during a Labour government and were highly influential in shaping early years education policy. Much of the policy on early education and childcare developed during the Labour period are firmly in place to this day.

There are, of course, many other examples. This article will explain some of the structural barriers to influencing government, and some tips for scaling the fences.

Structural difficulties

The nature of three different workforces involved: academics, civil servants and ministers.

Academics achieve promotion by the ability to produce published articles in reputable journals that are peer reviewed and by the ability to attract research funding. Attracting research funding is dependent not only on the usefulness of the questions being asked, but especially on the way in which those questions will be answered. Given that research on the same issue sometimes results in conflicting findings, great attention is paid to research methodology: qualitative or quantitative, randomised control trials, natural experiments, observational studies, large-scale data collection, case studies and so on. Sometimes as much intellectual effort is spent on proving a theory wrong as finding the right answer. Peer assessment of an academic’s reputation from colleagues in other universities is critically important to advancement. Self-esteem is strongly tied to the views of others in the same field from universities all over the world. The key message for young academics is less about the formal hierarchy of the university, and more about the rigour and credibility of research as viewed by senior academics from other institutions.

Civil servants operate in a very different environment. Firstly, the civil service structure is hierarchical, with a very clear grading structure, formal processes for promotion and clear expectations and authority for different layers of staff. At the top of the tree is the Cabinet Secretary, in charge of all civil servants in all departments. There are complex arrangements about civil servants in devolved nations, but the Permanent Secretaries for each of the devolved nations still report to the Cabinet Secretary. Each government department is headed by a Permanent Secretary. The grade below are the Directors General (SCS3), then Directors (SCS2) and then Deputy Directors (SCS1). This group of civil servants is collectively referred to as the Senior Civil Service (SCS). There are several more grades below Deputy Director: grades 6 and 7, Senior Executive Officer, Executive Officer, Administrative Officer and Administrative Assistant.

Promotion in the civil service is reliant on two key skill sets: policy skills and handling ministers. The most important difference from academics is that policy skills are assumed to be transferable. They are distinct from ‘content’ knowledge. There are some subject specialists within the civil service, and increasingly, skills of operational delivery and project delivery are also valued, but it is usually policy skills that get people to the dizzying heights. Policy skills are demonstrated by effectiveness across a wide range of issues. Hence to achieve promotion to very senior levels, a civil servant will need to achieve excellence in more than one department. Policy skills are not about the kind of in-depth knowledge of a subject area that typifies the lifetime of an academic. They are about being able to absorb relevant high-level information quickly, make informed judgements and advise ministers on the most effective way to implement public commitments made to voters. The skill of working with a minister is about being able to communicate complex issues, offer options for ways forward and be honest about risks, but not in a manner that looks resistant to the minister’s preferred direction of travel. Unlike in the United States, civil servants in Britain are scrupulously non-party political. For British democracy to work as intended, the wishes of elected ministers always hold sway and civil servants must help them towards their goals. The key take-home message for academics is that the most talented civil servants in policy skills are likely to move around frequently, sometimes because when a relationship with a minister is so good, the minister will want to keep the civil servant if reshuffled to another department.

There is considerable debate on whether the tradition of a ‘permanent’ civil service actually works. Many politicians have argued that at the most senior levels, civil servants should be chosen by the relevant minister and a new incoming government should be able to bring in their own team. In the US it is normal practice for thousands of top civil servants to be replaced by a new administration. In Britain when one party has been in power for some time and then is replaced by a different party, incoming ministers are suspicious that the civil servants will have party political loyalty. It often takes some time to establish trust in the impartiality of the civil service. Indeed, while the public and cognoscenti love leaks, it is leaks of policy discussions that most threaten the trust in impartiality. The system of special advisers (SPADs) is meant to provide ministers with advice that is intentionally political. They advise on how a particular policy will go down with voters. There are often tensions to be managed between civil servants and SPADs. Civil servants will always want airtime with the minister as opposed to getting fed ministerial views by the SPAD. Alternatively, sometimes the SPAD is useful in testing out ideas before risking the possible embarrassment of offering ideas to ministers that have no chance of getting through.

Ministers have a much more tortuous climb to the top than either civil servants or academics. The most senior ministers are members of the Cabinet. Each department has its own Secretary of State (SoS), and below the SoS, middle-ranking ministers are Ministers of State, and junior ministers are called Parliamentary Under-Secretaries, inelegantly referred to by some as PUSs. There are lots of exceptions, and the Prime Minister decides who attends Cabinet meetings. Most people who enter politics do so because they want things to change. At each rung of the ministerial ladder, power for change is increased, but like civil servants, it often requires appointments in several departments to achieve Cabinet status. The Prime Minister of course considers talent in ministerial appointments, but he/she will also be rewarding loyalty as well as popularity within the party and with the wider electorate. Sometimes appointments are made according to prior life experience: the Justice Secretary is almost always a lawyer. But this is the exception rather than the rule. Because it is within the PM’s gift to reshuffle the Cabinet and the ministerial team at will, being a minister is an insecure job. Climbing the ladder is precarious, and events can throw the best of plans off course. Most politicians are intensely ambitious. For those who make the lower rungs of the ladder, making an impact fast is critical. The timescale is not just about the election cycle; it is also about how long in a particular job is enough to impress the PM and get the next step up. Despite what the public image is of politicians, my experience of ministers is of people working extraordinary hours with sometimes very complex portfolios.

There will be competition between ministers within the same department or between departments for some policy areas. Government reorganisations surface these tensions. In 2001 the Department of Social Security merged with the employment teams of the Department of Education and Employment (DfEE) to create the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). The newly formed DWP unsuccessfully argued for responsibility for childcare, as it was seen as critical to employment. Even when the DfEE had both employment and education in its remit, childcare was with the Minister of State for Employment, and early education was under the Minister of State for Schools. Different sets of civil servants were responsible for two areas which largely concerned the same group of children.

The message for academics is that the changes of ministers and the moving of civil servants is inherent in the system. Both ministers and civil servants are more likely to get promotion if they manage different policy areas. The second message is that ministers are impatient, not because they are naturally difficult people, but because they are ambitious and need to demonstrate progress over short timescales. A new minister will want distinction from the previous incumbent, so new initiatives or modifications to earlier work is inevitable. They are also competitive. Cross-government working is sometimes impeded by the ambition of ministers; who will get the credit and opportunity for advancement if we work together? From the total number of ministers in any administration, only a small percentage will make it to the Cabinet. An MP once explained to me that the only direction for ministers is up or down. In most industries, including academia, if one is ambitious and can see that the next layer up in one’s own institution is not possible, one will look to other organisations in the same industry for promotion, or switch industries but keep to content. Finance directors and human resource directors move around. Teachers change schools. Politicians cannot decide to change countries.

Policy is informed by evidence, but it is also informed by ideology, public mood and the likelihood that change will be noticed within a reasonable timeframe. Assuming that politicians who do not follow the evidence are not intelligent enough is missing the point. Elections give politicians a mandate which is constantly tested by the mood of the public. Moreover, the evidence changes over time and is often contested by different academics. Hence in making policy, civil servants must be able to present the evidence in ways that support the general direction that ministers want. Ministers will want evidence that is unequivocal and will have very little interest in how the evidence was collected. For academics, unequivocal evidence is almost impossible, and methodology is crucial. Tensions are inherent in the differing systems of career advancement and in judgements about the quality and usefulness of evidence.

Getting it right for civil servants and ministers

Often the most difficult task is trying to change policies with which you fundamentally disagree. Academics have their own political views and personal ethics and values. Outright opposition and providing evidence to strengthen the arguments of independent organisations seeking changes to policy can be useful. However, some of the most effective policy influencers are working with the grain of what a minister wants and trying to make it better. In education, there is almost universal political and public agreement on the need for a publicly funded education system accessible to all children. What that system should deliver for children and young people, how that system should be organised, the nature of pedagogy and the methods of teaching reading and maths are all areas of fierce debate. In any particular area it is vital to understand the policy context and find areas of agreement and/or improvement.

Some very basic tips are about establishing relationships. For any particular minister there will be a team of civil servants working on the policy area. Most of the hard work is done by junior and middle-ranking ministers and teams under a Deputy Director. So, it is vital to know who the Deputy Director is for your area, arrange regular meetings, if possible, and keep informed as policy is developed. It can be helpful to write a note of congratulations to new ministers as they arrive, and always copy the note to the relevant Deputy Director. Civil servants will rightly be working very hard to help the minister craft new policies. Try to provide new ideas and solutions to problems. Basically, help them do their job more effectively. Treasury and the Number 10 Policy Unit are also important sources of influence. Keeping contact with relevant teams at both can be very useful. It is also helpful to make alliances with academics in similar fields and to come up with a core set of key messages that are agreed. This is particularly important for campaigning voluntary organisations but is true for universities as well. Discrediting the research of others only makes ministers and civil servants feel that no one can be believed.

Any written material aimed at civil servants and ideally, the minister, requires a different style from journal articles. The key message is to keep it brief, start with a summary of key findings, then explain how they could be important for policy. Leave methodology for the appendix. Limit as much as possible the caveats about findings. If you are publishing material critical of a particular policy, and it is likely to get media attention, it is very helpful to let the relevant official know in advance.

Much of what is in this article will be widely known among academics. But often attempts at change fail because the person wanting to make the change does not work hard enough to understand opposing factions. What I have tried to do is explain some of the structural reasons why academics, politicians and civil servants approach problems from very different starting points. Constructive relationships can overcome these barriers and understanding the barriers may help in establishing constructive relationships.

Naomi Eisenstadt is Honorary Fellow, University of Oxford Department of Education.

This article was commissioned by Professor Iram Siraj, Department of Education, University of Oxford.


Parents, Poverty and the State by Naomi Eisenstadt and Carey Oppenheim is available on the Policy Press website. Order the book here for £10.39.

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