A report by former Lord Justice of Appeal, Rt Hon Sir Stephen Sedley into the scale and sources of delayed publication of government research has revealed widespread confusion in the way research commissioned by government is handled, both internally and with the public.
The inquiry was initiated following a spate of media stories about government research reports being suppressed or delayed, allegedly because the findings were politically awkward. Suppression is an issue, as the case studies in the report show. However, of far greater concern is the confusion over rules governing publication, which are open to manipulation and causing millions of pounds of research to be lost from government records. Ghost research is being created: paid for but, unrecorded and unpublished, it becomes unsearchable in the national archives and exists only in the memories of officials.
Sir Stephen’s report finds a lack of clarity about what constitutes government-commissioned research and what is subject to the publication rule. There are significant differences in the way departments report and record research; 11 government departments were unable to provide a list of research they have commissioned; of those, seven said that they didn’t hold that information centrally and it would be too costly to gather. Civil servants who gave evidence to the inquiry reported that departments spend significant time trying to find past studies that they commissioned and paid for.
Sir Stephen concludes with recommendations for action:
1. All government departments should register externally commissioned research in a standardised public register and report its publication, so that this information is available, and continues to be available, to the rest of government, parliament, the research community and the public.
2. Government’s heads of analysis should issue guidance on what constitutes government research.
3. All research contracts should include a commitment to prompt publication and clear plans for the format and process of publication.
4. Government communicators and politicians should be trained to understand and engage with research and should learn from effective handling of difficult subjects by others in government.
The Rt Hon Sir Stephen Sedley: “The request to report on delay in the publication of external research commissioned by government departments looked straightforward enough. Every department must know what research it had commissioned and what had happened to it. My task would be to pick out any recent cases where publication had been delayed or deferred by government, and to examine the reasons why.
“The discovery that many departments of state either do not possess or cannot easily provide this basic information has given my work and this report a new and unexpected dimension. I hope that the resulting recommendations will do something to move the UK towards a more open mode of government and a better informed civil and political society.”
Tracey Brown, director of Sense about Science, which commissioned the inquiry: “If government wants people to trust the research it commissions, and if it wants to go on attracting top class researchers to its contracts, then it needs to behave accordingly. Departments should not be losing valuable research or subjecting it to swings in the political mood. The fact that a few departments do maintain a research register, handle awkward findings and publish promptly exposes the excuses of those that don’t. Sir Stephen has revealed that we don’t know what has become of millions of pounds worth of government-commissioned research because government itself doesn’t know whether it was published, or where it all is now.”
Nick Ross, broadcaster and Sense about Science trustee: “Sir Stephen Sedley has shown that while suppression may not be routine, procedures are so feeble that the outcome is not much different: expensively commissioned findings sometimes fail to see the light of day and weak rules are used to bury unwelcome evidence for long enough to make it stale. But there is good news too. Sir Stephen explains how we can make it easier for Whitehall to give us the facts and for politicians to share intelligence among themselves. If only they knew what they know, policymakers would make a better fist of things, and if only we knew what they know democracy would be healthier. For this is not top-secret stuff concerned with military intelligence or organised crime. It is evidence about straightforward policymaking. Stuff we ought to know. In an afterword to the report Tracey Brown of Sense about Science argues that those in power who fear transparency should learn to trust the public. Given Sir Stephen’s findings there can be no justification to resist her call.”
Dr. Prateek Buch, policy associate at Sense about Science: “It was great that academics, former ministers, senior civil servants, chairs of parliamentary committees and journalists shared their experiences of government research with Sir Stephen. The inquiry benefited from their frankness on often difficult issues. This was especially valuable given how incomplete the government’s own records are.”