Government reports: file under 'ignore'

Reports commissioned, recommendations ignored, has been a consistent theme throughout Labour's tenure, writes Eifion Rees, so will a new government or a coalition be any different?
As Vancouver says farewell to the winter games the torch is passed to ... London? Not if ministers had listend to its own 'experts'

As the Winter Olympics packs up in Vancouver, the Olympic torch begins its journey to ... Paris?

This may well have been the story had the government listened to its own experts. In December 2002, the Game Plan report, commissioned by the culture, media and sport department and signed off by then-prime minister Tony Blair, concluded that a successful Olympic bid would produce no lasting benefits for the capital.

It has become a familiar pattern over Labour's 13 years in power. The government commissions reports, the report's authors make recommendations, the government welcomes those recommendations – and for the most part ignores them.

Examples include Kate Barker's review of housing in 2004; a Home Office white paper on 24-hour drinking in 2005; the Crosby report on ID cards in 2008; and Ed Gallagher's damning biofuels review that same year.

Drugs tsar David Nutt

Another example was drugs tsar David Nutt, sacked as the head of the Advisory Council on the misuse of Drugs in 2009 – three months after a Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee (CIUSSC) report suggested scientific advisers should name and shame departments that based decisions on political considerations rather than research.

It remains to be seen whether last week's Home Office-commissioned report into lads' mags will also get left on the top shelf.

Why does the government consistently ignore expert recommendations? Clearly a balance must be struck – accepting all advice is as bad as ignoring it – but the government appears to have found another third way: commissioning reports in lieu of acting upon them.

Chris Game, honorary senior lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies, Birmingham, suggests Labour is probably a victim of its own prolific report-commissioning. Having championed evidence-based policy-making, it has provided academics with more ammunition to attack it than any government before – and, he suspects, after.

"Some of the blame must also lie with junior ministers, eager to make their mark and impatient with the time it takes academics to provide considered evaluations," he says.

"They jump ahead without fully waiting for, let alone incorporating, the recommendations of pilots." An example of this was highlighted in the CIUSSC report: the Every Child A Reader scheme, whose national roll-out was announced in 2006, just one year into a three-year pilot scheme.

Game adds that often there is a communication clash: academics are not necessarily very good at negotiating with politicians, providing them with what they need, when and in the form they need it.

Patrick Dunleavy, professor of political science and public policy chair at the London School of Economics, says Labour governments have tended to be more keen on commissioning enquiries, and this was particularly noticeable during the first Blair term, but doesn't believe they have more of a tendency than any other party to ignore their findings.

"Governments sometimes have disagreements with advisers, and there can be quite good reasons for not accepting expert opinion," he comments. "I'm not saying it's defensible, but it's perfectly common and a pretty permanent political thing. We are also currently in an unusual period, with ministers not able easily to bind their successors into long-term plans. If the government were rushing through all the long-term planning it could and trying to bind it in concrete, there would soon be opposition."

In terms of what happens after the general election, Dunleavy believes a hung parliament would be good and a coalition government better for evidence-based policy-making: "A minority government cannot pass legislation without the parliament's agreement, for which it need consensus and a strong, legitimising consulting process to get everyone on board.

"Two parties working together will mean several commissions and committees, plenty of focus on detail, and no strong ideological ability to resolve everything along party lines. To avoid mistakes and running an ineffective government, they will consult more and adopt things that work well."

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