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Government-commissioned researchers 'leaned on'

LSE research points to Whitehall ‘trying it on’

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Researchers working on government-commissioned projects have reported feeling pressured into making their findings chime with Whitehall’s political objectives.

A report by researchers at the London School of Economics – based on a survey of 205 who worked on such projects between 2005 and 2011 – found “sufficient evidence” to suggest that governments lean on academics in these scenarios.

“We had to fight continually to maintain the integrity of the research design,” says one of several respondents who express concern about the influence that government employees exert from the outset of the projects.

“I was shocked at the level of interference of civil servants at certain points in the progress of the research,” says another.

“Specifically, they intervened at the sampling stage, changing entirely the case-study sample, [meaning] that those most sympathetic to government values and most closely aligned with the thinking behind the policy were more likely to be represented.”

The report, titled “Evaluation Under Contract: Government Pressure and the Production of Policy Research”, was published online in the journal Public Administration.

Another researcher questioned for the report explains how their team was “pretty much told” at the outset that the purpose of the report was to show that the programme under scrutiny was cost-effective.

A fourth complains that civil servants “kept a very close eye on the research and the research process”, pointing to the “real risk that academic freedom would be compromised as a result”.

Some 33 per cent of respondents say they had been asked by the government to make “one or two” changes to their draft reports, with a further 19 per cent reporting requests to make more substantial alterations.

Around half say they had not been asked to make any changes, the report finds.

“We have been able to pin down a range of mechanisms through which governments might seek to influence the outcome of evaluations for what might be described as the provision of ‘political ammunition’, some obvious, some less so, and to assess their importance,” it says.

However, despite the numerous attempts to influence findings reported, such interference appears to have “little systematic importance” in shaping the nature of the conclusions that the researchers reach, the study concludes.

One of the report’s authors, Edward Page, Sidney and Beatrice Webb professor of public policy at the LSE, told Times Higher Education that there was “no doubt” that the government was “trying it on” and that researchers had either to stand up to the pressure or find a way to meet the state halfway.

“It is to be expected that, at some stage, the government will apply pressure on researchers,” he said, adding that there would always be a trade-off between the research produced and the political will to commission it.

“If an academic says they can make the report less astringent in terms of some of the comments included, is that necessarily a bad thing? I don’t think so.”

A government spokesman said: “Successive governments have commissioned research to inform the development of policy. In the Civil Service Reform Plan, this government committed to an open policymaking agenda.

“We have been clear that Whitehall does not always know best and that we will draw on external or independent advice when necessary.”

chris.parr@tsleducation.com

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