Strategic Research Planning in Whitehall?

The Government’s Areas of Research Interest Reports (ARI) were introduced as a key mechanism for improving the planning of government research and improving liaison and co-ordination with the wider research community. The majority of departments have published ARI reports, but how useful are they?

UK government departments require research evidence for a range of reasons and spend millions of pounds on R and D every year.  If this spending is to be effective in providing the evidence needed to underpin decision making, government research programmes need to be carefully planned and delivered. This is challenging given that government departments are complex entities with multiple goals and vested interests. A key challenge is to cut through traditional ways of doing things in order to achieve an appropriate balance of spending between different objectives, focused on delivering high quality timely evidence that fills genuine gaps, addressing long term as well as short term needs, and complements research funded via other routes. 

The dangers of poor planning and lack of, or very selective, liaison with the wider research community have of course been all too evident in some instances in the past, for example, in 2005 a review of social research at the Department for Transport revealed a less than rosy picture with regard to how programmes were formulated and managed, with patterns of spend tending to reflect history and professional vested interests rather than genuine medium – long term evidence needs. This report was particularly critical, at the time, of the department’s management of its existing knowledge base.

A more strategic approach?

The 2015 “Nurse Review’ of the Research Councils highlighted the need for improvement signand advocated a more strategic approach to government departmental research programmes. In particular Nurse called on government to facilitate a more sophisticated dialogue with the wider research sector and specifically advocated maintaining ‘statements of need’, which set out the most important research questions confronting  Departments. It went on ‘these will require work across the Government analytical professions to develop’.

Areas of Research Interest reports

In response to Nurse the government has developed the ‘Areas of Research Interest (ARI)’ approach which requires departments to set out their main research questions in order to ‘align scientific and research evidence from academia with policy development and decision making, access a wider range of suppliers and engage with researchers’.

ARI reports started to appear early in 2017 and the latest tranche were published in May last year.   DWP have also recently published an updated report. Whilst these are a welcome step, it is fair to say that some are better than others. fullsizeoutput_138Some are almost a rehash of departmental annual reports which restate key departmental objectives. Whilst I acknowledge that it is difficult to produce this kind of strategic document, in some cases it is difficult to get a handle from the reports on what the real evidence gaps and priorities actually are. Most departments already have an extensive evidence base on many of the issues contained in their ARI report and it is difficult to get a sense of what departments think they already know and an assessment of the really key gaps which in turn should be influencing the balance of spending between objectives. Indeed, the lists of bullet point issues contained in some reports are not really helpful unless one is willing to take on the huge task of mapping the existing evidence base against the numerous issues listed. Departments should already have done this and it would be helpful if reports were more transparent.

It is now two years since the first tranche of ARI reports appeared but it is unclear what the plans are for updating them are. It is assumed that some of the gaps identified will have been filled, some will be in the process of being filled and some gaps are likely to remain. It is true that DWP have recently published an updated report but this is the only department where the ARI reports appear to be a live issue, and even here the 2019 update is very difficult to locate on their website as it does not sit in the same place as the 2018 ARI report. . 

A key problem is that few of the reports provide links to departmental research programme webpages. Many of these are organised along disciplinary lines and problems are made worse by the fact that none of these programme pages are organised around the headings in the ARI reports, indeed some of them don’t even mention the department’s ARI report.

Cross Cutting – Cross Government Research?

Another key recommendation of Nurse was there should be a cross government statement regarding the Government’s overall R&D needs, spanning the full range of Government Departments. It is now over three years since the Nurse review was published yet such a cross departmental document does not seem to exist at present.

In fact, cross cutting research needs are notable by their absence from most reports and there is a tendency for research questions to be formulated through the lens of individual departmental agendas, reflecting the way in which current ministers view their issues. This is not helpful, particularly in facilitating liaison with outside bodies, which tend not to be organised around Whitehall silos.

Since the reports were published the new UKRI (UK Research and Innovation) has published its strategic priorities. This is a high level document that does recognise the importance of cross cutting, multi disciplinary research and labels it as such. However, it is difficult to see how UKRI can function as effectively as intended if some government departments continue to view their research priorities (no doubt reflecting their policy priorities) through such a narrow set of lenses.

 Making a reality of  cross cutting research will require a change of culture within the  civil service, but is unclear how the new analysis function in the civil service is shaping up.  office-1209640_1920-1-630x470This was first mooted in 2017 and at a conference early last year the late Sir Jeremy Heywood challenged the community ‘to become more visible so that analysis shapes the decisions on important issues facing the UK’. Since then the government economic service and social research service have published a joint strategy setting out a broad framework for a joint approach. However, it is unclear what is actually happening in practice and it remains to be seen what will become of this development given current preoccupations with Brexit as well as the strong vested interests of some professional groupings.

Concluding Comments

It is early days, but so far at least there is little evidence to suggest that the ARI reports are having a major impact on research planning and delivery across Whitehall. Indeed, it is difficult not to conclude that, for some departments at least, the production of ARI reports has been something of a tick box exercise.

Effective research planning requires strong internal champions and effective external challenge if vested interests concerned with preserving the status quo or ‘their share of the budget’ are to be effectively challenged.

It also requires adequate staff resources, led by  senior professionals with sufficient resources to devote time and space to long term research planning. There are signs of this in the DWP report but it is challenging in a context where staff have many competing short term day to day demands on their time. Staff cutbacks on non Brexit issues have been significant and this, coupled with the volatile political climate does not make the ideal backdrop for effective research planning.