Recent research in Science and Technology Studies (STS) and related fields has scrutinized UK policy institutions’ governance of technical policy domains, revealing the prevalence of naïve assumptions about citizens’ engagement with science and technology. Government officials are characterized as wedded to institutional commitments and averse to criticism. From that perspective, technical policy issues such as energy and climate change are addressed without the sufficient interrogation of assumptions about citizens. This study, based on an analysis of 15 interviews with civil servants and over 40 documents (including evidence reviews, policy reports, stakeholder publications and parliamentary records), presents a more varied picture within the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) during the years of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition Government (2010–2015). It focuses on two priority policy areas of the time: the Green Deal and the installation of smart meters in UK homes. It is shown that government social researchers in DECC have aided policy officials to rethink their understandings of citizens. Social researchers have achieved this through their institutionalized commitment to providing an evidence-based “challenge function”. I conclude that policy development on technical topics is more likely to be effective if policy officials engage with social researchers at an early stage, and if social researchers receive senior civil service representation and support. This article is published as part of a collection on scientific advice to governments.
For many years, researchers in STS have raised concerns with western governments’ engagement with scientific advice in policy areas relating to science and technology. A key strand of work has revealed how scientistic and technologically determinist assumptions about citizens pervade policy-making processes, such that decisions are made with insufficient consideration of how different groups in society might respond to experts’ knowledge claims or new technologies (Winner, 1992; Jasanoff, 2004; Irwin, 2013). Citizens are imagined to behave in highly predictable and uniform ways, and motivated by the same concerns, desires and values as decision makers (Winner, 1992: 359, Kearnes et al., 2006: 299).
Where STS authors offer explanations for UK policymakers’ apparent ignorance of citizens’ diverse perspectives and engagement with science and technology, they often invoke the claim that organizational structures and narrow, “instrumental rationales” preclude government officials from reflecting on such matters (Wynne, 1993; Chilvers and Macnaghten, 2011: 539; Pallett and Chilvers, 2013). This, coupled with other social scientists’ depictions of civil servants in the UK Government as averse to criticism (LSE GV314 Group, 2014, citing Norris, 1995), paints a rather pessimistic picture of the potential for better understandings of citizens to inform and influence policymakers’ work in technical policy areas.
This article nuances the picture somewhat, by elucidating a previously unexamined means by which scientistic and technologically determinist assumptions have been influentially challenged within the UK’s civil service. It does this by exploring how civil servants have conceived and operationalized the idea of a “challenge function” with respect to the role of social science expertise in the Department of Energy and Climate Change, during the years of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government (2010–2015). Specifically, it explores the experiences of analysts within the department who belong to the Government Social Research Service (henceforth “GSR”).
Government social researchers are a group of analysts in the civil service who are employed in government departments and agencies to provide social science advice (HM Government, 2016). To become a formally accredited government social researcher, one must undergo a written examination and interview. These analysts are typically responsible for commissioning social research projects, engaging with external experts and translating analysis into the policy process. This can involve exploring an evidence base for alternative courses of action, assessing how the impacts of different options may be distributed across society and/or designing and commissioning policy evaluation. By focusing on government social researchers within DECC, this article argues that challenge is more prevalent and influential in policy areas dominated by scientific and technological issues than might be expected given the above cited literature.
The idea of providing a “challenge function” is engrained in the guidance provided to all analysts who work in the civil service by the formal accreditation bodies which support them. Government scientists, engineers, economists, statisticians, social researchers and operational analysts are all expected to use their expertise to challenge their colleagues’ ideas and assumptions (for examples from the Government Social Research Service, see GSR Unit, 2006; Campbell et al., 2007; for examples from other analytical schools see, Government Economic Service, 2007; Government Science & Engineering, 2013). Indeed, as part of the formal process for assessing individual researchers’ suitability for promotion, an analyst’s record for providing challenge is explicitly considered (for example, Government Social Research Service, 2010). In this way, individual researchers are assigned responsibility for providing a challenge function within their area of work.
Yet, the Government Office for Science (“GO-Science”) has found that government analysts do not always challenge their colleagues’ claims when they judge them to conflict with their understanding of the available evidence (2013: 20). Consistent with an individualized understanding of the challenge function, they account for this in terms of analysts’ personal failings, such as a lack of willingness or confidence, and cite a personal tension between an analyst’s commitment to supporting the organization on the one hand and putting their head above the parapet in a way that could damage their own career on the other (Government Office for Science, 2012: 20, 31). The implication is that analysts’ performance of challenge relies upon their judgement as to whether the evidence will be appreciated or not by colleagues—but nothing is said of the conditions which affect whether it is likely to be well-received or not.
As Owens (2015: 150) has written with respect to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP), interdisciplinary challenge between committee members inspires learning, enables deeper debate about the assumptions and contingencies underlying a particular framing of an issue, encourages experts to reflect on alternative solutions or problem framings, and ultimately improves the quality of scientific advice provided. Her analysis highlights what is lost in GO-Science’s overly individualistic account of the challenge function: an appreciation of the “circumstances of influence” (Owens, 2015: 124), which underpin its effective operation. Acknowledging this requires us to go beyond individual attributes such as confidence or willingness. We must pay attention to the social and material conditions that shape the type of influence that analysts can wield in a team. In her analysis, Owens (2015: 164–168) emphasizes that the receptivity of the RCEP’s advice among policy audiences depended upon not only the commission’s rhetorical and strategic approaches to dissemination, but also upon government officials’ perceptions of the RCEP’s expertise, legitimacy and autonomy, as well as a range of political, institutional and economic contingencies that conspire either favourably or against the salience of the commission’s advice at a given time.
In a similar vein, this article highlights a wide range of factors beyond individuals’ willingness or confidence that shape analysts’ provision of internal challenge in the civil service, through a close examination of social researchers’ engagement with two policy areas in DECC. As we will see, key factors include: the relative status of analysts within the organizational and epistemic hierarchies in the civil service, the support and encouragement they receive from colleagues, and their access to relevant knowledge and resources. These factors, which play out in contingent circumstances, are distributed across communities and networks rather than being intentional characteristics associated with individual analysts. Appreciating this can help us to understand what can enable or inhibit successful challenge within UK policy institutions, and provide a more comprehensive basis on which to consider how the influence of analysts’ challenge function within a policy institution could be strengthened.
The paper proceeds as follows: after outlining the methodology used to generate and analyse the data presented here, I provide a background to the emergence of social researchers within the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Then each of the following two sections focuses on a key policy area during the Coalition Government years in which social researchers worked closely with policy colleagues (the Green Deal and smart meters implementation). These sections highlight the circumstances in which the analysts provided challenge and consider the extent of influence their advice commanded. The penultimate section identifies some constraints on social researchers’ ability to exercise challenge, before a concluding discussion of the findings in relation to the literature on UK policy institutions’ understanding of citizens in technical policy domains.
This study reports findings from a project that explores the role of government social researchers in DECC. The analysis presented here is based upon semi-structured interviews with 15 civil servants, which is commensurate with related studies in policy settings (for example, Rhodes, 2005; Pallett and Chilvers, 2013). The officials were predominantly current or former employees in DECC. Ten of them self-identified as social researchers, while the rest held positions in other analysis or policy-related posts. Most of the social researchers were experienced “middle-management” officials at grade 6 or 7—as is typical for the profession—but a handful of senior civil service researchers and other colleagues in DECC were also interviewed.
Middle-management civil servants’ personal details are rarely listed in departmental publications or official records in the UK. Therefore, a handful of actors who played instrumental roles at different points in the department’s history were initially identified through an online search of keywords (e.g. “social research”, “customer insight”, “policy evaluation”, “social science” and “DECC”), and through chance encounters at academic events prior to starting fieldwork. The rest were then selected through a process of “snowballing” (Bryman, 2004: 334)—with a degree of “purposive sampling” (Punch, 2014: 161) to ensure that enough material was obtained for focused case studies on specific policy areas.
Data generated in this way were iteratively triangulated (Stoecker, 1991: 92) with an analysis of over 40 publicly available government documents (such as policy reports, findings from social research projects, economic impact assessments, politicians’ speeches, guidance for government analysts and parliamentary records). These provided additional insights into the context in which social researchers operated. Documents were selected through a combination of online searches and the suggestions of interviewees. In vivo coding (Corbin and Strauss, 2008: 160) using NVivo software revealed the strong associations between social researchers and the provision of challenge in DECC, and inspired this study.
By beginning the transcription and analysis of data during the interview stage (following Miles and Huberman, 1984: 49), I was able to spot emerging gaps in my understanding and address them so as to eventually reach data saturation within specific policy areas (Corbin and Strauss, 2008: 148). The examples discussed in the sections “Social research and DECC” and “Social research and the Green Deal” were chosen for the relatively high degree of influence achieved by social researchers under the circumstances, and for the breadth of material obtained on the topic. The internal validity of findings was strengthened through the assistance of current and former civil servants in DECC, who checked an earlier draft of the paper for factual inaccuracies while respecting the researcher’s independence over questions of subject matter, analytical perspective and interpretation. Any remaining errors are my own.
This article has provided clear examples of government social researchers providing a challenge function within the Green Deal and smart meters policy areas. As we may have expected given the literature, the inclusion of social researchers in these policy areas was predicated on instrumental rationales, rather than a commitment to encourage reflection on how citizens are imagined (Wynne, 1993; Chilvers and Macnaghten, 2011; Pallett and Chilvers, 2013). The researchers were expected to help maximize the uptake of the Green Deal among citizens, and to ensure that consumer benefits from the smart meters roll-out would be as high as possible. But, consistent with Owens’s observation that under the right circumstances experts need not be constrained by the instrumental role ascribed to them (Owens, 2015: 16), social researchers went beyond the instrumental functions that they were expected to perform. This was most clear in the case of the Green Deal, where the researchers challenged the assumption that this was an appropriate scheme for engaging all types of people across society. In this light, claims that instrumental rationales preclude transformative learning about citizens seem misguided. Rather, more empirical studies are required to understand the circumstances in which better understandings of citizens do constructively challenge policymakers’ assumptions.
Experts’ vying for epistemic recognition within the UK’s civil service is not a new phenomenon. Historians have written similar accounts highlighting the contingent political and institutional reasons why medical and natural science expertise came to be appreciated and institutionalized within Whitehall (Gummett, 1980; Clarke, 2007; Sheard, 2010). However, what is novel here is the observation that there is now formal recognition of the importance of evidence-based challenge itself in contributing to the effectiveness of a government body. To this end, individual analysts are held to account on the challenge they provide, and rewarded when this is deemed effective. This, in itself, is a commendable step towards improving the UK government’s use of scientific advice.
But the civil service (and GO-Science in particular) could go further by supplementing individualist accounts of challenge with a greater appreciation of the social and material context that can shape its effective operation. We have seen that social researchers’ influence depends on factors such as whether policy officials seek their advice at an early enough stage in the policy process, the encouragement they receive from senior figures (for example, the Cabinet Office’s capability reviews team and the National Audit Office), the rapport they have built with their colleagues, the resources at their disposal, and their relative status in the civil service hierarchy. More attention to these issues may aid GO-Science and others to strengthen analysts’ capacity to challenge where this is found amiss.
The interview-based data generated and analysed for the current study are not publicly available due to interviewees’ terms for interview. But the author welcomes opportunities to collaborate with anybody interested in the data.
How to cite this article: Kattirtzi M (2016) Providing a “challenge function”: government social researchers in the UK’s department of energy and climate change (2010–2015). Palgrave Communications. 2:16064 doi: 10.1057/palcomms.2016.64.
Although some writers pointed out that the finance was relatively cheap as it was fixed for the period of the agreed plan, and would be covered through the savings made by the household (Guertler et al., 2013: 157).
This assessment was justified at the time of writing, prior to the transfer of DECC’s responsibilities to the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy under Theresa May’s Conservative Government. (Rincon, 2016).
See Adam Cooper’s article in this thematic collection for more on the matter of topical expertise in the civil service.
The author would like to thank Jane Calvert, Sarah Parry, and Steven Yearley for their invaluable supervision for the PhD project behind this paper. This project would not have been possible without support from my generous interviewees and from the ESRC (Award Grant: ES/J500136/1). The author is also indebted to Justyna Bandola-Gill, Emma Frow, Gill Haddow, and Mark Winskel for kindly commenting on earlier drafts. Any errors and omissions are my own.