Academic impact, particularly within the policymaking process, can strike at unexpected moments. Earlier this week, the UK Treasury released a press release that included references to a 2010 LSE Public Policy Group report. Joel Suss, Managing Editor of British Politics and Policy blog, asks Patrick Dunleavy about the way in which the Treasury used his research findings to arrive at a figure of £2.7 billion. Does this whole episode also serve to illustrate the problems of mis-communication between civil servants and researchers?
What are the main problems with last week’s press release from the Treasury on the reorganisation costs of an independent Scottish Government?
The UK government correctly said that in our 2010 LSE Public Policy Group report Making and Breaking Whitehall Departments, Anne White and I estimated that the cost of setting up a new medium-sized department at UK national level was then £15 million. This covers just the extra expenses of reorganisation itself, and not any possible enhanced effectiveness gains. It is (if you like) the transaction cost of change (like paying a solicitor to do your house conveyancing).
The Treasury then took this £15 million estimate and said that an independent Scotland government would need to create 180 new bodies. (I’m not clear how they got that number.) Next they multiplied £15 million by 180 to get £2.7 billion as the ‘set-up’ costs of an independent Scotland’s government.
— Patrick Dunleavy (@PJDunleavy) May 27, 2014
This is a very crude series of steps to make. Alex Salmond has rightly pointed out that the Scottish government are not proposing to create 180 Whitehall-scale departments in Scotland. Whitehall departments are very big and expensive organizations, the Rolls Royce of administrative machines. The Secretaries of States, Ministers of State, junior Ministers and Permanent Secretaries all have large staffs and costly offices. Highly siloed Whitehall IT systems need to be altered and reconfigured. Offices need to be moved. Often staff contracts and pay levels from different departments have to be unified. And everything needs to be rebranded. These costs all add up. So our estimate was based on the size and function of an average Whitehall department.
Actually, many of the new bodies needed in Scotland could be very small. For example the UK Electoral Commission has an annual budget of £21 million for its work (covering a 61 million population). You certainly would not need to spend £15 million to create a Scottish Electoral Commission, covering only 5.5 million people.
What does this episode say about the nature and complexity of academic impact?
I’ve actually just published a book (with co-authors) on how academic work has an impact on policy-making. So this is an interesting little incident to add to the picture, illustrating the problems of mis-communication between civil servants and researchers. It shows how people in government need to be a bit more engaged with academia in an effective (and not exploiting) way. It also shows how policymakers need to consider now the power of social media, such as Twitter. I simply sent two tweets yesterday afternoon [one of them above], which were then picked up, and then the story made the front page of the Financial Times.
How would you overall evaluate the information that the Treasury has issued?
I think that UK ministers and the Treasury potentially have a point in arguing that the Scottish Government has not been very forthcoming, they might even say evasive, about clarifying some of the costs entailed in independence. But there is no point in putting into public circulation misinformation to try to counteract that. My objection is that the Treasury have woefully misapplied our research estimates and that this did not need to have happened. If officials had rung me at any time (as e.g. any good journalist would) I’d have been very happy to brief them on our findings. and on the issues involved in producing good quality information here.
This is an extract from a longer piece which originally posted on British Politics and Policy.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.
Patrick Dunleavy is Co-Director of Democratic Audit, Chair of the LSE Public Policy Group, and a Professor of Political Science at the LSE.