Evidence should be more than a footnote in the revamped Ministerial Code, says David Walker, contributing editor for Guardian Public and chair of the ESRC’s Understanding Society board.
Theresa May has revamped the Ministerial Code, the mini-bible on conduct at the top of central government departments. Attention has, of course, focused on the paragraph she felt obliged to add after Damian Green’s departure as first minister, which says parliament and Whitehall should be governed by the same norms as other places of work.
This version, like its predecessors, has a bit to say about cars – ministers should ideally take the tube – and gifts.
What it doesn’t list among ministerial obligations however, is evidence – and that’s an opportunity missed. The Ministerial Code mentions evidence just once, and that’s in an appendix listing the seven principles of public life – one of which states that holders of public office must take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence.
That’s a strong norm, but in a document meant to define the respective roles of civil servants and ministers, couldn’t we have heard more about how the system could and should ensure decisions are taken after the data and analysis have been thoroughly sifted and discussed?
For example, the Code mentions departmental boards, chaired by the secretary of state and supposed to oversee performance and delivery. Don’t they also have a responsibility for the knowledge economy of departments, ensuring both that prospective policies are analysed and researched and intelligence flows easily upwards to the ministerial floor?
‘Ministers have a duty to give fair consideration and due weight to informed and impartial advice from civil servants…and should have regard to the Principles of Scientific Advice to Government.’ Sir Jeremy Heywood and Patrick Vallance, the incoming chief science adviser, might say that’s pretty affirmative.
But couldn’t the Code have laid an obligation on ministers to guarantee that civil servants themselves are ‘informed’. That’s not just a question of resources for survey divisions and analysts, but about mainstreaming evidence gathering and presentation.
The Code reminds ministers that permanent secretaries are generally ‘accounting officers’. They have a legal obligation to tell a minister when a decision could lead to ‘waste and extravagance’ and seek to veto it, with recourse to the National Audit Office.
What about a parallel legal obligation to model policy decisions in advance, to chart unintended consequences and maximise the application of research and evidence?
Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Remember you can join us (it’s free and open to all) and find out more about the how we champion the use of evidence in social policy and practice.