Public policy – is it academia vs party politics?


Some thoughts from a couple of talks inside Cambridge’s public policy community

Puffles has been flying around the Cambridge Public Policy community of late. Talks hosted by the Cambridge Science and Policy Exchange, by the Centre for Research in Arts, Social Sciences & Humanities, and the Cambridge Public Policy programme have brought a few issues to the surface.

Prof Henry Tam – are we living in a plutocracy?

The name may ring a bell with some of you. Henry Tam used to be the deputy director for community empowerment delivery at the Department for Communities and Local Government, one of the senior civil servants that worked on the Communities in Control White Paper, and formerly the Head of Civil Renewal at the Home Office. He’s now back in academia both at Cambridge and at Birkbeck, and blogs here.

The picture Henry painted was one where the social progress of the post-war consensus, in particular with income disparities, has been undermined by the neo-liberal consensus. He looked at time-series data on income & wealth – citing these as the strongest indicators of power. The picture isn’t good, as the data from the Equality Trust show.

He also looked at the historical context, citing Ancient Rome, the Catholic Church in the middle ages and France in the years preceding the 1789 revolution. With the Church in particular, one of the core societal beliefs was the belief in the monopoly of salvation: – only through the organised church can you get this. As a result, church gained huge wealth and power. As it became institutionalised, people had to submit to the church because of both the belief & power of the institution. Challenge that & you could get killed – and people did. “In the next world, you’ll get your share. In the mean time…” Exactly. With France just before the revolution, it was the belief that there was this ‘special’ group of people – the aristocracy. The belief they propagated was that the land has belonged to them and they should be treated with deference & respect…& should not be taxed. While the workers on the land should be.

In both those cases, the beliefs were undermined, leading to the rebellions, revolts and revolutions.

Henry then compared those historical precedents to today – the belief around the core concepts of the neo-liberal consensus. This is especially important in public policy debates today because the acceptance or otherwise of this framework has a huge impact on the sort of policy responses that are dreamt up by policy-makers. One of those is about the role of the public sector. Another is about the level of public sector spending. Coalition ministers have framed the debate around Labour’s record on public spending – set in concrete by Liam Byrne’s extremely ill-judged note to his successor David Laws just after the 2010 general election. Thus making it much harder for Labour to argue for any alternative.

The wider question that Henry tried to unpick was who are the people and institutions that can unpick the neo-liberal consensus given that the data tells us that this consensus is leading to policies that is exacerbating things like climate change, growing polarisation of society and the enrichment of the top 1% to levels not seen before. In particular what is the role of academia? One of the big barriers for academia is fear of losing funding – something that impacts charities that deliver state contracts too. On the latter, this was explored in a fairly old paper from the Charity Commission. How can academia and academics retain their independence of thought from the state without having to worry about funding impacts of any criticism of policies of the government of the day?

Dr Hugh Hunt – Engineering the Climate

Dr Hunt covered similar material (but at greater depth) from his talk at Science Day at the Department for Communities and Local Government. (He’s working on the SPICE project) The big thing that came out of this discussion for me was the huge barrier between the science world and the public policy world. Ditto the science world and mainstream media & through them, the general public.

One issue – one that came up at the Cambridge Science and Policy Exchange event, was the engagement of scientists with politics. For whatever reasons, there are scientists that choose not to engage with politics and the public policy processes. Yet it is essential that scientists do this because – and as Dr Hunt set out clearly, there are some very difficult choices that need to be made in terms of mitigating for, and adapting to climate change. But science and scientists need to be at the heart of the conversation, informing and educating the public as well as policy-makers, not least so that people are equipped to deal with and challenge the noise coming out from big corporate interests.

Science and party politics?

This comes back to the point I made in response to Steph Gray: Where do you draw the line between public policy and party politics? If the high level principles are set at a party political level, doesn’t this require at least some scientists to become active in political parties? The challenge with that is that the world of party politics is a very messy, opinionated and potentially dangerous one – to ones reputations anyway! Hence I use the term ‘Whitehall jungle’. That’s not to say the world of science isn’t just as messy & opinionated – it’s just that in science there is a strong focus on evidence bases. In party politics, it can literally fall down to whether you like the other chap or not, or whether he went to the same public school as you.

The point I’m trying to make here is that scientists need to bring scientific analysis in particular into the realm of politics – to scrutinise what happens in the world of party politics. This is especially the case where politicians try to use weak evidence bases to justify their policies. In the new world of open policy making as well as open data, it is essential that academics and scientists engage with the world of public policy and party politics, if anything to scrutinise and improve the quality of the policies that are ultimately implemented by ministers.


3 thoughts on “Public policy – is it academia vs party politics?

  1. Puffles, regarding your final section would your analysis change if there was a meaningful alternative to our current party dominated political processes. This could enable science and political decision makers to become closer linked?

  2. They can have a great deal of influence outside party politics, and participation may reduce the impact they can have, not increase it. Particularly at senior levels, academics have a greater influence than many people imagine. But we do need more structures (academic think tanks etc) that can make it easier for academics to gain exposure to policy makers and practitioners earlier in their careers without jeopardising their promotion prospects.

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