Seeing things from the other side: shadowing at the Department for Transport


Oliver Francis gets out and about in the name of knowledge exchange.

I’ve written before about a few of the challenges of knowledge brokering, and there are countless learned papers detailing the myriad ways that the domains of academia and policy are different. But, as will not surprise any social scientist, there can be a big difference between knowing something and experiencing it. So, feeling I was spending too much time at my desk and wanting to experience the policymakers’ perspective, I arranged to shadow Pauline Reeves, Deputy Director for Sustainable Travel and Equalities at the Department for Transport – a contact formed by the Centre for Science and Policy’s excellent Policy Fellowship scheme.

Quite literally walking the walk (of active travel that is), I journeyed half an hour on foot to work each morning, and on the first day found myself getting to a seminar on a Boris bike (or Ken cycle, if you prefer). The latter gave me my first user experience of this particular transport intervention. Verdict: a little stronger redistributionist approach would help with finding empty docking stations. (Insert your own policy metaphor here.)

                                London’s bike here scheme: in need of a stronger redistributionist approach?

The seminar itself was for those interested in bidding for grants to improve cycling in National Parks. It was a reminder that cycling isn’t just about cities, and underlined the importance of tourism to the economy: apparently Danny Boyle’s ‘Green and pleasant land’ vision from the Olympics has big appeal in China and India.

Attending the seminar, witnessing the enthusiasm of participants and seeing some of the potential bids take shape, you could be fooled into thinking that the battle has been won for active travel. But in reality, this was a case of sampling bias: it was a room full of active travel leads. When academia engages with policymakers, it is often a conversation between people who already share a perspective. But simply preaching to the converted is no good, and if academia does not get the opportunities to engage with those who aren’t already convinced, we need to help our allies to do so. At its simplest this might (plug ahoy) take the form of simple evidence summaries to provide ammunition, and sometimes something a little more intensive may be needed.

It boils down to getting the evidence at the table. As one of my favourite diagrams (below) reminds us, evidence should be part of good policy, but it’s never going to be the only part. Yes, this picture is a gross simplification of the real world, but as George Box, who died in March, said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful”.

                                                                                           One view of making good policy.

Sitting in meetings at the department, it is clear that policy priorities quickly become money, time, deliverability, ministerial preference, and – perhaps more pressingly than anything else at the moment – the demand for economic growth. In these circumstances, that overlapping sweet spot might become small, but it can still be there.

The civil service is also governed by the strange paradox that everything takes a very long time and has to be done yesterday. The machinery of government requires building consensus within and between divisions, across departments, up to ministers, and across the coalition. But life is also governed by the 24 hour news cycle and the ministerial announcement, where one component out of place can threaten months of hard work. (There was the occasional Thick of It moment whilst I was at the department – although, it should be said, without the baroque swearing.)

In some senses, this interplay of the ‘important but difficult’ and ‘urgent and expedient’ was very familiar to me, having spent nearly a decade in the NHS. Indeed, my previous encounters with Whitehall had been principally with the Department of Health, so it was interesting at the DfT to observe how a non-health department gets to grips with health evidence. It takes one simple question to realise that evidence and data get very complex very quickly. The short-hands and assumptions that are widely used within academia have to be carefully restated, and I was again reminded how all our caveats and cautions can sometimes end up obscuring rather than elucidating a truth.

It was also an object lesson for me in the importance of open access. Wanting to find a particular crucial piece of evidence, I couldn’t access half the papers online that I was used to be able to get to whilst sitting within the electronic bubble of the university.

Finally, although it’s easy to be irreverent, cynical even, about the process of government, what I took away from my visit was that the Sustainable Travel team was full of commitment, professionalism and eagerness to get the policy right, and to use evidence to do so. The demands on policymakers are not trivial: they are attempting to solve problems for multiple outcomes across multiple domains, without much money, and in a coalition with conflicting perspectives and ideologies.

No wonder evidence-based policy isn’t a straight line, but a tricky negotiation.

No wonder evaluation is complex. No wonder you’re finding that ‘pathways to impact’ section in the grant application hard to write. But the more time we spend seeing the world from the other side of the river, the easier the bridges will be to build.

Oliver Francis is Knowledge Broker at the Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR).

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