Digital tools could help Whitehall tackle its ‘poor institutional memory’, says think tank

Written by Rebecca Hill on 14 March 2017 in News
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Whitehall urgently needs to improve the way it uses existing evidence in policymaking and make better use of digital records to keep track of what is already known, so civil servants do not reinvent the wheel, a report has said.

Digital records could help Whitehall keep track of its past policies and research - Photo credit: PA

The think tank the Institute for Government's report, All Change, published today, argues that Whitehall has a tendency of recreating policies and organisations on “an alarmingly regular basis”.

This churn is not just because of changes to political parties or leadership, the report said, but also due to “persistent weaknesses” in the UK’s system of government, including poor institutional memory and a policy development process that “is not as resilient as it could be”.

The report brands institutional memory and knowledge management within Whitehall as “weak” and in need of urgent improvement, adding that the problem is exacerbated by the “tendency towards generalism in the civil service, which can come at the expense of specialist knowledge”.


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To tackle the problem, the IfG makes a series of recommendations, including that departments make better use of digital tools to better capture what they already know, and to ensure they don’t have to start from scratch on every new policy idea.

The think tank also points to a Cabinet Office report published earlier this year that said civil servants risk re-inventing the wheel because they can’t access information on previous solutions, and that this wasted effort could cost the government £500m a year.

That report, Better Information for Better Government set out the parlous state of government record-keeping, saying that the shift to digital had “undermined the rigour of information management across much of government”, with much information poorly organised and "almost impossible to search effectively".

The IfG picked up on this in today's report, saying that policymakers “should be able to access a repository of work already undertaken in their policy area, in order to inform their own recommendations”.

There should also be an onus on policymakers to demonstrate that decisions have been informed by evidence and existing policies or previous work, the IfG said.

“Our studies of changes which have lasted point to the importance of establishing both a clear evidence base and a wider coalition for change before embarking on reform, in order to provide resilience,” it said.

The report recommended that policy announcements be accompanied by the evidence base that underpins them; that departments acknowledge previous policy and organisational approaches in all new policy proposals and explain what lessons have been learned; and that outsiders be involved in policy development.

In addition, the IfG said that the head of policy profession in each department should be held accountable for making sure the knowledge management system is adequate.

It also suggested that the government reviews career incentives within the civil service, on the basis that a rapid turnover of staff leads to lost institutional knowledge.

A similar issue was raised last year by the campaign organisation Sense about Science, which published a report that found that many departments don’t keep track of the research they commission, which leads to needless duplication and “ghost research” that officials cannot find.

The Sense about Science report, which was written by former Court of Appeal judge Stephen Sedley, urged the government to create a central database of all external policy advice it commissions.

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