Think Tank to Thank? – The Origination and Development of the Central Policy Review Staff and its relevance to the Public Policy Institute for Wales today

This week’s guest blog comes from Michael Hodson, an undergraduate student at Cardiff University. As part of his three week placement with the PPIW over the summer Michael was asked to research the history of the Central Policy Review Staff, and what lessons it can offer the PPIW today.

The Central Policy Review Staff (CPRS) was the first major independent policy and research institute, or ‘think tank’, set up to serve government in the UK. It was established by Edward Heath in 1971 as a response to the white paper ‘The Reorganisation of Central Government’ (1970).

The primary aim of the CPRS was to increase efficiency in policy development, through better analysis of policy, greater clarity about objectives and analysis of government expenditure. At any one time the CPRS never had more than 16 members of staff, which was made up of a mixture of academics, civil servants, and people from the private sector.

The CPRS suffered multiple criticisms during its existence. One key criticism was that being located ‘within’ government may have affected its working practice and thus undermined its independent status. Its recommendations were seen as being likely to reflect what the government was anticipating or hoping for, rather than what the evidence might support. .

The other main criticism was that the CPRS overstretched itself and strove towards too many disparate aims and objectives across too many sectors. Whilst it was acknowledged that there were a plethora of issues and public policy sectors that needed addressing, some argued that for all this to be addressed competently by one small organisation was too great a task.

The CPRS adapted in response to this criticism by changing its roles and aims, but ultimately it began to decline in effectiveness and was disbanded in 1983 by Margaret Thatcher.

The Public Policy Institute for Wales (PPIW) and the CPRS share some characteristics. One of these is their ability to analyse policy proposals without being constrained by departmental boundaries.

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Another is the ability to work on long-term policy aims as well as answer immediate ministerial concerns. This can be illustrated through the CPRS who were tasked to work towards the improvement of the National Health Service as a default objective of the organisation, alongside the various tasks specified to them by government. Similarly the PPIW works in partnership with the Welsh Government to tackle the issue of poverty as it is an imperative priority for all parties alongside ministerial requests.

However, there are key differences between the CPRS and the PPIW. The CPRS had been criticised as being overstretched and striving towards too many largely different objectives simultaneously. Their almost exclusively internal method of completing set objectives was criticised for leading to a poor standard of research and, consequently, poor policy advice to the government. In contrast, the PPIW mediates with experts and academics who conduct the research to ensure evidence policy proposals are at the centre of what they do. Unlike the CPRS, the PPIW is located at arm’s length from government, and while some observers have suggested that the PPIW works too exclusively for ministers, they have not suggested that its recommendations are not independent.

Although the PPIW did not consciously look to the CPRS as an example of how, or how not to, fulfil its role, it has avoided the charges of overstretch that were levelled against its predecessor. Because it is not situated within government, it also has a different, and more independent, relationship with ministers and officials. But the establishment of the PPIW shows that the basic purpose for which the CPRS was created- to provide government with original policy advice and analysis that was not constrained by shorter-term deadlines or existing departmental boundaries- remains as important as it was nearly fifty years ago.

 

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