Ways forward: policy-makers often lack essential experience



Ministers accused of politicising Whitehall”thunders the Times.

It is not that many years ago that Mandarins were fulminating against the idea that each department should have the right to appoint one expert in its field. The problem is that as a policy-maker you don’t have to consult that expert – the expert will only have some influence over those matters about which he or she is consulted; and in this world of specialisms, there are very few experts whose experience covers a wide enough field. Moreover it is all too easy to ignore that advice since the experts will quickly get squeezed out or lose their jobs if they choose to go public about any advice that is not accorded its full weight.

An increasing difficulty in policy making in all fields is the lack of that knowledge of how people think and react, gained by actual experience in the field itself – for too long we were led by accountants and lawyers because it was felt that their minds were such as to be able to deal effectively with any subject, while the engineer and the marketing expert were seldom the bosses – their experience regarded as secondary. It has long been argued that the introverted nature of the Civil Service prevents it from having enough experience of reality; and the appointment of a single adviser to each department was seen as a vital step forward in policy making. But it fails all too often.

Take for example efforts to reverse the huge rise in youth unemployment. There have been a number of programmes to try and reverse this, often premised on political dogma – such as outsourcing to private enterprise, each without taking account of evidence about what actually works (a number of effective proposals have been ignored, shelved or reversed.)

It is hard to persuade policy-makers, boards and committees of management to take time to go out and learn first-hand about the issues they are working on; and easy to suppose that reports are comprehensive. Microsoft’s Labs in Cambridge attacked this problem by bringing world-class experts to its own doors. Advisory boards were appointed for each major strand of its work, drawn from leading experts in that particular field all over the world. They were commissioned to review the work being carried out by Microsoft and to report regularly on how it fitted with and matched up to comparable work being carried out elsewhere in the world – an approach that ensured that expert advice was integrated into the management of the Lab.

Right now, there are three alternatives:

1.    A sharp change of culture in the Civil Service – towards a better understanding of the importance and value of external advice.

2.    Appoint more external advisers.

3.    A more formal use of external advisers by Mandarins – by involving them more intimately in the policy-making process.  The Times concludes that their roles and responsibilities should be made clearer.


My focus and that of my workshops and seminars is on drawing from each other’s experience – you might be amazed at what your next door neighbour has achieved and how he did it!


John Whatmore                                                               February 2013

The Centre for Leadership in Creativity



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