Outsourcing policymaking to think tanks: it can guarantee influence but is it desirable?

21 May 2012

Two weeks ago, London elected the Conservative politician, Boris Johnson, to his second term as mayor of the city. There was a notably low turnout, perhaps because the three major parties each put up the same candidate that had contested the election the last time around, in 2008. More interesting, then, were the individuals representing the smaller parties, not least the former civil servant Siobhan Benita. Running as an independent, in some ways she was more of an ‘establishment’ candidate than those from the established parties. A career bureaucrat, she even won the support of the erstwhile head of the Civil Service, Sir Gus O’Donnell.

Benita said she’d decided to run because ‘she was losing faith in the power of the civil service to keep politicians in check’. Her statement attracted predictable criticism, from both the left and right. Commentators pointed out that it’s not the job of the civil service to hold elected representatives to account (that’s the first step on the road to authoritarianism). Keeping the government in check is the job of parliament, voters and the legal system – not an unelected technocracy.

I was reminded of Benita’s analysis of the role of the modern civil service when I read in the Times a couple of days ago that the government is considering outsourcing areas of UK policy-making to think tanks and other organisations. At face value, there’s little new in this: many think tanks measure their success on their closeness to government, and governments the world over have long outsourced their research and policy grunt work to non-civil servants. Where this proposal differed, however, was in the idea that policies might also be implemented by the outsourced providers.

The suggestions are as follows. Against the background of austerity-driven public spending cuts and a reported growing frustration in the British prime minister’s office with the efficacy of the civil service, government departments would commission think tanks or consultants to devise, develop and ‘torture test’ policy, instead of using bureaucrats to do this job. Policy areas could include revising business regulations or reviewing welfare payments. A department that wanted to develop an idea that had gained prime ministerial approval could draw from a pot of money, and then choose from ‘a list of companies, think-tanks, consultancies or charities chosen by the Government to work on the scheme’. At the moment, most policy ideas are developed ‘in-house’ by specialist subject experts – the change could mean this group would be significantly reduced in number.

Where outside organisations were entrusted with actually putting policies into effect (most likely when managing smaller schemes), controversy might arise for two reasons. One, though the government currently outsources much similar work – the Times article mentions how McKinsey’s and PwC are already advising on IT and finance products – this would represent the first time third parties would be able to devise policy without direct civil service involvement. Two, the proposal raises significant questions about conflicts of interest. The article quotes the concerns of a civil service source: ‘[i]n areas such as regulatory reform, for example, the same firm which developed the policy could implement it as well’.

Let’s consider the consequences of these proposals for think tanks. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, and the plans have not yet even reached pilot stage. However, it’s not too difficult to imagine a situation in which think tanks that take advantage of the scheme would not be subject to the same level of scrutiny as an equivalent commercial outfit. As this blog frequently argues, think tanks – even if constituted as a charity – tend not to be neutral, non-partisan organisations. Their work is intensely political, and they aim – rightly – to influence policy just as assiduously as businesses. Yet they depend on using informed, evidence-based research to support their policy work. The sustainability of their credibility therefore derives from maintaining some distance from government. If the entire research, policy, and implementation cycle were farmed out to an ostensibly independent research institution, this would close loops that were formally open. A think tank would be wise only very cautiously to discard a reputation for openness to academic collaboration.

Secondly – and even though there can be significant career advantages for individual staffers if think tanks are perceived to be close to government – the quality of a think tank’s output is also dependent on an ‘arm’s-length’ relationship. It’s a fine line to draw, but a think tank’s reputation depends a lot on its ability to take government to task where necessary. How can it deliver innovative policy suggestions if, rather than acting as a ‘critical friend’, a think tank is offered significant financial incentives to work directly on behalf of a government’s agenda – thereby opening itself up to accusations that it’s benefited from patronage?

A third point has more to do with the attitude expressed by Siobhan Benita. The British system of government is known for its impartiality and lack of corruption largely because its unwritten constitution puts political decisions in the hands of elected ministers, and demands political impartiality from civil servants. Above the middle ranks of the bureaucracy, it’s forbidden to hold even lowly political rank. This is why Benita’s comment was worrying, and why handing over policy implementation to any external organisation should also be of concern. Under the proposals, the civil service would not only outsource the policy-making process to political organisations, but its constitutionally mandated accountability as well. If anything went wrong, where would the buck stop?