It cannot be emphasised strongly enough that our advice must be based upon knowledge and understanding gained through research and experience.
It should be the aim of every policy adviser to be the acknowledged expert in their policy area. Once we have been in the job for some time, it should be a matter of professional pride that no-one else should understand our patch better than us – and that includes senior decision makers and our line managers, even if they have the advantage of seeing a wider picture. Conversely, seniors staff do not need to be familiar with all the detail that ought to be at the fingertips of others. But they should be able to hold their own in any discussion of the major issues, trends and currents that affect their policy area.
The besetting sin of civil servants is to mix too much with each other. (Sir William Beveridge)
It follows that we cannot be effective if we never get out from behind our desks. We must find a way to experience for ourselves the problems or issues with which we are dealing. Seeing, after all, is believing. We also need to be familiar with the political and other context of our work, and to be conscious of the world outside our own environment. Not everyone is a white-collar worker, not everyone has GCSEs and not everyone lives in the South East of England. Indeed, 99 per cent of the world’s population, and 96 per cent of economic activity, is outside the UK. We need to be aware of opportunities, trends and ideas outside our immediate experience. Without such experience we will never fully understand the arguments, emotions and undercurrents which condition the people and businesses with whom we deal. And only with such experience can we avoid the trap of recasting reality in our own image, and believing that our elegant and logical view represents the only possible view of the issue under consideration.
Gaining experience can also be great fun. For a start, it often involves travel. And although you might be criticised for traveling to interesting places at the taxpayer’s or the business's expense, you will be criticised even more strongly – and with more reason – if you never get out at all. And you do not necessarily need to travel very far. As a civil servant, I will certainly never forget my pre-dawn start, sorting and delivering the Royal Mail, or the time when my PA and I worked together on the production line at Longbridge. Both experiences taught me great respect for those who do such jobs, day in day out, without letting quality standards slip. For instance, it would have been all too easy, with a new car coming along every eighty seconds, to let a mistake go uncorrected in order to be ready for the next vehicle, but no-one did so. Such experiences also taught me the difficulty of managing in non-office environments, in out-dated buildings, and at times of day when none of us are at our best.
Two sources of excellent advice and information are often overlooked.
First, a good place to look for information is in the minds of front-line staff, and in the minds of others to whom the policy is directed. They will very often have a clear idea about why a situation is the way it is and why previous initiatives have failed. In government, you should never underestimate the wisdom and experience of the front line staff in 'delivery partners ' - in local authorities, in the NHS, in the police, etc. etc. You should certainly never rely on middle or senior managers. For instance, Deutsche Bank asked 2.4 million customers and their branch managers and their junior branch staff, to rate branch performance. There was a very high correlation between the junior staff’s perception and that of their customers, while there was almost no correlation with the branch managers’ perceptions and the customers’
( This came as no surprise to organisational experts. Click here for a fuller discussion of 'principal-agent theory'.)
Second, there will be academics who have thought hard about your policy area. Their advice should not be accepted uncritically, of course. They may have their own political or other agenda, and may be deeply unsympathetic to the constraints on your organisation's ability to pursue particular paths. But they will know a lot of detail, and they will understand both sides of the policy debates. So get to know them as soon as you can, and listen careful to what they have to say.
Two Other Points
Because it has to incorporate hard facts and detailed analysis, expert evidence and advice will (if you are not careful) arrive too late to make a significant difference. Research results and other expert input should therefore be timed so as to arrive when it might be welcomed.
Research etc. must take into account local circumstances. One size seldom fits all. New York knife crime, for instance, was restricted to certain parts of the city. Its successful anti-knife crime initiatives may not therefore translate to London where knife crime is more thinly spread across large parts of the city.