Articles about the UK Civil Service and Regulation

Preparing for a New Government & Meeting New Ministers

I prepared these notes when briefing colleagues before a previous General Election.  I hope they may be of some interest  – and of some use – in 2019.

It is an exciting time … and an opportunity to make a big difference by helping a new set of Minsters settle in, and start achieving their objectives.  Enjoy the challenge!

What do you want to achieve in the first few days?

  • A good relationship with new Ministers
    • Mutual respect
    • You need to be seen as non-political but committed to achieving their objectives
    • Understand individual Ministers’ characters, styles, needs
    • They will be a mixture of excited, knackered, terrified, suspicious.
  • Get to understand Ministers’ long term aims
  • Well-briefed, knowledgeable Ministers
  • Ministers who [are beginning to] understand how to work within government, and in particular with civil servants
    • Particularly important in smaller departments in view of need to ‘punch above weight’ in influencing other departments’ policies.
    • Need to avoid ‘departmentalitis’

Personal chemistry very important.

  • First impressions very important
  • Transactional analysis
    • Aim for mutual respect if Minsters signal they want to work effectively with officials
  • Initial Ministerial meetings need to be with impressive staff. Do not field inexperienced, nervous or loquacious colleagues.

Passion is good – but it needs to be directed towards implementing new policies. It is important not to appear negative when new Ministers suggest change, and important to avoid appearing to be committed to predecessors’ policies.

  • Avoid “this department’s policies”
  • Beware of appearing too well connected with pressure groups – and Europeans!
  • Make sure your assertions are evidence-based – particularly when repeating assumptions of previous Ministers
  • Discontinue use of previous Minsters’ language (e.g. Tories do not like New Labour’s ‘stakeholders’)

Offer frequent briefings to staff colleagues

  • Oral briefings best
  • Emails good as long as carefully drafted – positive tone
  • Pass information around between teams – inc. to/from other departments.
  • Keep close to Private Office and SpAds

 Be mentally prepared for turmoil.

If it happens then react positively.  Do not show you are upset.  The system will support you.

Enjoy being part of exciting change.


Links to other useful advice:-

Working with Ministers
Giving Advice to Ministers
Speaking Truth to Power

Martin Stanley
Editor – Understanding Government

Change often fails miserably — Here is how to succeed

This blog was first published by .   It was written by Martin Stanley who edits the Understanding Government and Understanding Policy Making websites, and is a former UK civil servant. For more like this, see apolitical’s government innovation newsfeed. 

Change programs are like games of Jenga  —
they can quickly come crashing down

Does this sound familiar? –  Under pressure to cut costs, your top team mandates an efficiency drive which successfully reduces the number of employees by 15 or 20 percent.

Rather pleased with themselves, they turn to other problems only to find — a year or so later — that managers have found reasons to recruit, headcount has started drifting up again, and all those efficiency gains are being lost.

Or maybe your managers are worried about “silos”? Important parts of your organisation don’t talk to each other or coordinate their activities. So they implement an exciting internal communications strategy using newsletters, a Yammer network and a regular Knowledge Café featuring a communicator of the month.

Six months later, the newsletter is overdue, Yammer is mainly used to organise parties, and Knowledge Cafes are sparsely attended, and not attended at all by senior managers.

What is going on? Well, the organisation is doing what organisations always do, which is to revert to its original shape once external pressure has been removed.

The external pressure at first appears to work and the organisation appears to change, but this creates unseen internal pressures which assert themselves once the external stimulus has been removed. The answer — the only answer — is to address all the key elements of your organisation at the same time.

It sounds daunting and it requires serious planning, but it is the only way to achieve a reasonable chance of success.

What are the key elements? They can undoubtedly be described in a number of ways, but these “Six Cs” works pretty well:

  • Capacity
  • Capability
  • Communications
  • Culture
  • Compensation
  • Constitution

Let’s look at each in turn.

Capacity is straightforward:  it is the organisation’s resources, and in particular its staff numbers. It is an easy and obvious target for efficiency gains. The equally obvious problem is that the remaining staff will need to work harder or in different ways. Which leads directly to the next element:

Capability, which could also be referred to as competence.  This encompasses staff skills, training, experience and motivation.

It lies at the heart of any change program because,  obviously enough, if you don’t improve – or at least alter – the capability of your team then they are very unlikely to be capable of working effectively within a more challenging environment.

Note in particular that improvements in capability must be more than just cosmetic. A change of title plus a bit of e-learning will not cut it. There needs to be a serious training program and/or supervised further experience followed by rigorous testing.

Staff motivation can be particularly resistant to change, if only because most humans do not like being taken out of their accustomed comfort zone. There is extensive literature on how whole organisations can lose confidence when faced with the need for change, and this needs to be understood and allowed for. This in turn requires high class communication, hence the need to also focus on the next element.

Communications: This includes both communications whilst the change program is ongoing, and also new ways of communicating once the changes have been implemented.

The methods you choose to use to communicate within the change program must be specifically designed for your organisation — and indeed for individual parts and levels of your organisation. But the messages to different audiences must be consistent if they are not to be discredited, and must be capable of persuading the cynical and disaffected as well those keen on change.

And, afterwards, more open, fast-moving and less hierarchical communications styles (if that is what you need) will need to be reflected in changes in the organisation’s culture:

Culture: It can be extremely difficult to develop new internal relationships, attitudes to innovation, and attitudes to customers.

These improvements are often driven by changes in compensation/remuneration — as I outline below – and reinforced by employing more experienced and better trained staff, which speaks to the Capability element above.

Indeed, this is perhaps the area where change programs most often begin to fall apart when change managers fail simultaneously to address all six elements listed in this note.

Compensation: If you are aiming to employ fewer staff then you will almost certainly have to reward the remainder rather better, even if this limits your cost savings.

The same applies if you want staff to work more independently and/or innovatively, or to demonstrate better interpersonal or customer-facing skills.

Constitution: Last, but not least, very few of any of the above elements will respond to pressure for permanent change unless accompanied by changes to organisational structures, reporting lines etc.  These sorts of changes succeed in administering severe jolts to any organisation, because they are hard to reverse and lead to both managers and staff re-evaluating their roles and responsibilities.

It can be hard to know when to introduce these organisational changes. They will feel premature and unnecessary if introduced before much else has changed. And they will be too little, too late, if the other changes have already begun to degrade.

In short …. very few change programs achieve their full objectives, and many are complete failures.  This is because it takes a lot of thought and time to plan a program which simultaneously changes all six key elements of an organisation. But the effort is well worthwhile if you are seriously focussed on success.

Martin Stanley

Follow this link for more advice on Managing Policy Teams
in the private and public sectors.

The Significance of 106 and 117

Can anyone help – especially a mathematician and/or a historian?


The Cologne City Museum has a copy of this 1638 document which consists of a table of multiples of all numbers up to 99 – plus 106, 117, 256, 318 and 365.

It is pretty obvious why 365 is included, as well as 256 (2 to the power of 8).

But why were 106, 117 and 318 (3 x 106) included?

Here is a close up of the bottom left hand corner of the tables:


Responses, Thoughts …

Alex Bellos kindly asked the same question on my behalf back in 2011.  There were some interesting responses but nothing that seemed to get near explaining why scholars in the 1600s might want to be able to calculate multiples of 106 and 117.

Richard Harries has pointed out that both 106 and 117 are the sums of two squares – 81+25 and 81+36 respectively.  And 81+49=130 in effect appears as 13.  Now … does that help?  Is there a link to simple geometry via Pythagoras’ sums of squares?  But 81+64=145, which doesn’t appear.

In case it helps, the panels around the multiplication tables feature  Astronomia,  Geometria Ingeniara,  Arithmetica,  Castrame Tatio – this picture shows preparations for a battle,  Mercatura,  and  Mensuration Alt et Profund – this picture shows the height of a building being measured.  There is no suggestion that the tables were for religious use.

Here are three photos of items along the top border of the tables, for those who read Latin and German.





Martin Stanley  &  @ukcivilservant

Editor  Understanding Government

Dangerous Cuts to Environmental & Social Protection

I have been impressed by the quality of the first research  findings of .   It is, I guess, hardly surprising that regulators’ enforcement activity has fallen over the last few years.  But the scale of the reduction is astonishing.   From 2009/10 to 2016/17, real terms funding for the environmental and social protection work of ten key national regulators fell on average by 50%.  The consequential falls in enforcement activity are summarised in this chart:

Screenshot 2019-10-08 at 17.15.57

There is much more detail in unchecked‘s first briefing paper The UK’s Enforcement Gap  but a couple of sentences stand out:-

  • The number of Local Authority food safety improvement notices fell by 50%.
    • It has subsequently been reported that 15,000 restaurants etc. would fail hygiene tests*.  The cost of consequential sickness falls on employers and the NHS.
  • Fire safety audits in England fell by 30%.
  • Environment Agency prosecutions of businesses fell by 80%.
    • The agency has no specific budget to enforce legislation introduced in 2018 to protect waterways from fertiliser and manure pollution which is one of the main reasons why more than 80% of England’s rivers fail to meet EU minimum standards**.

Against this background, it was ‘interesting’ to hear Sajid Javid recently announce a (post-)Brexit Red Tape Challenge even though Brexiteers have been noticeably coy in refusing to say what sort of regulations and enforcement might be cut further if we leave the EU.  This suggests that we will be hearing quite a lot more from unchecked over the coming months and years.

A detailed history of UK Better/Deregulation may be found here .


Martin Stanley

Editor Understanding Government, including Understanding Regulation .

* The Times 5 October 2019
**The Times 17 August 2019

The Civil Service v. Boris Johnson?

It has been suggested (28 August) that “We are reaching the point where the civil service must consider putting its stewardship of the country ahead of service to the government of the day”.

I do not recognise this concept.

Statute law and convention both require the civil service to serve the administration as it is duly constituted for the time being, whatever its political complexion.

Civil Servants’ duties etc. are summarised in The Armstrong Memorandum, the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 and the Civil Service Code.

The Armstrong Memorandum says that:

  • Civil servants are servants of the Crown. For all practical purposes the Crown in this context means and is represented by the Government of the day. … The Civil Service as such has no constitutional personality or responsibility separate from the duly constituted Government of the day.
  • The determination of policy is the responsibility of the Minister (within the convention of collective responsibility of the whole Government for the decisions and actions of every member of it). In the determination of policy the civil servant has no constitutional responsibility or role distinct from that of the Minister.

The Constitutional Reform etc. Act provides that

  • there should be a Civil Service Code which “must require civil servants … to carry out their duties for the assistance of the administration as it is duly constituted for the time being, whatever its political complexion”.

I cannot see that the above texts offer any possibility that civil servants have a duty of stewardship of the country, nor can I think of an example of such stewardship being exercised.

For completeness, the Act does also say that

  • In exercising his power to manage the civil service, the Minister for the Civil Service shall have regard to the need to ensure that civil servants who advise Ministers are aware of the constitutional significance of Parliament and of the conventions governing the relationship between Parliament and Her Majesty’s Government.

This phrase is repeated, but not expanded upon, in the Civil Service Code which, under the same Act, “forms part of the terms and conditions of service of any civil servant covered by the code.”

This formulation perhaps offers a glimmer of hope to those who would have the civil service defy the Johnson government.  But it does not persuade me.

All in all, therefore, we are in such a constitutional bind at the moment that I cannot think of any way in which any form of civil service intervention would make matters better.


  1. Former Head of the Civil Service, Bob Kerslake, suggested on the Today Programme on 29 August that the current Cabinet Secretary, Mark Sedwill, and his senior colleagues should resign. But they would need to be replaced, and it is hard to imagine that the Prime Minister would accept successors who were anything other than keen to do his bidding.
  2. And the IfG’s Catherine Haddon has noted that:- “There has been long debate about preserving their ability to serve future governments and advising on constitution and whether both constitutes some kind of ‘guardianship’ role. But that has always been about things within their purview and the proceedings of Parliament are not.”
  3. Civil servants – inc. those working in No.10 and for the Leader of the House – should have been consulted on, and will readily have given advice on, whether Ministers’ proposals were consistent with constitutional arrangements.


Martin Stanley
Editor  – Understanding Government websites … including …
Understanding the Civil Service

Civil Servants Now Free to Promote Brexit

Keen Brexiteers  have long believed that the senior civil service has been trying to scupper Brexit.  More recently, keen Remainers have become concerned that civil servants have become too willing to promote Brexit ‘propaganda’.  The key change, I suspect, is that civil servants are – in some ways – finding it much easier to work with the Johnson government that with its predecessor.  They should certainly not be criticised for promoting the new government’s Brexit policies.

Civil Servants have three quite distinct roles:

  1. First, they speak truth to power, offering private, honest, advice to Ministers before the latter make policy decisions.
  2. But then, once Ministers have made those decisions, civil servants are expected to help Ministers promote and defend their policies, even if officials advised against them.
  3. Finally, officials are responsible for delivery, implementing Ministers’ decisions on the ground and drafting the necessary legislation.

Whether ‘promoting and defending’ or ‘delivering’, officials must put their doubts (and inconvenient facts) on one side and proactively seek to deliver Ministers objectives, however controversial and unpopular the underlying policy decisions.

Prior to 24 July, it was far from clear when the UK was intended to leave the EU, nor on what terms.  The Cabinet was badly split and there was in particular zero clarity about whether ‘No Deal’ was a realistic outcome.  Officials were roundly criticised for being insufficiently wedded to the Brexit project, whereas the truth was that they were still giving advice (which undoubtedly included worries about ‘No Deal in particular) and were also reflecting the different messages coming from different Cabinet Ministers.

It is much easier now.  The government’s policy is clear.  All Ministers now say that Brexit is a good thing, and that we need to plan and prepare to leave on 31 October with or without a deal.  Civil servants are expected enthusiastically to promote those policies. The only constraints are that civil servants cannot communicate untruths, nor criticise political opponents.

Martin Stanley
Editor  Understanding Government

Dominic Cummings & the Civil Service

Dominic Cummings’ arrival in No. 10 is said to be very bad news for the civil service.  I am not so sure.

If you dig a little deeper, according to Oliver Wright:

[Dominic Cummings] at the Dept for Education inspired extraordinary loyalty, certainly among fellow believers but also from some civil servants who were as frustrated by Whitehall bureaucracy as they were. As one person in the [Education] department put it: “The caricature of Dom as the villain is wrong. He accepted argument and evidence. He wasn’t dogmatic. And a lot of senior civil servants responded to it as a breath of fresh air. When he fell out with people it was over whether things could be done differently.”  Another former colleague said that he had never worked for someone “more inspiring or oddly charismatic”.

David Allen Green commented as follows:

[Dominic Cummings’] candour and openness was striking.  …  There is none of the platitudes and evasions of the politicians of both sides on Brexit.

Looking forward, many would surely applaud Mr Cummings’ reported wish to foment a cultural revolution in Whitehall so that civil servants (and Ministers) have a more instinctive grasp of the importance of science, technology and productivity for the UK’s future.  And I suspect that a majority of civil servants would share some or all of Mr Cummings’ reported criticisms of the Whitehall machine:

  • its inability to respond quickly to errors;
  • the “slow, confused” and usually non-existent feedback;
  • the “priority movers” system that sees incompetent staff members (“dead souls”) moved into jobs elsewhere in the civil service rather than sacked; and
  • the “flexi-time” working regimes that allow key personnel missing in action when big announcements need to be planned.

It is not as though the UK has a great track record in policy making.   There have been lengthy analyses of government blunders for which politicians must take a large share of the blame.  There are very few senior politicians who are nowadays genuinely keen on prioritising sensible policy-making, nor science, technology and productivity. Indeed, it is interesting that previous Cabinet Ministers seem to have detested the obsessive Dominic Cummings and his criticisms.  David Cameron called him a career psychopath and Nick Clegg said he was loopy.  Theresa May’s views are not known, though we do know that Mr Cummings thought that her triggering of Article 50 was premature, and that her implementation of Brexit in general, and her red lines in particular, were catastrophically inept.  Few civil servants would disagree.

The Mandarinate must nevertheless surely also take much of the blame for the UK’s current woes.  It is hardly entirely their fault, but they have not shown themselves to be effective in speaking truth to power when it was most needed.

Sadly, I doubt that Mr Cummings has identified the right medicine  to cure the ills that he has identified.  He has argued, I understand, that “quitting the EU will sweep away another roadblock on the path to his vision of the UK.”  But I cannot understand that logic whether it comes to encouraging revolution in Whitehall or elsewhere.  It would be much better – if less exciting – to carry out a root and branch review of the relationship between Parliament, Ministers and the civil service – a 21st Century Haldane Report, if you like.

Short of that, so far as the civil service is concerned, I suspect that part of the answer will need to be better targeted performance management.  I was struck by this Matthew Parris anecdote, which applied just as much outside the FCO as within it:

… our outgoing ambassador remarked that, beyond all the routine work that had had to be done day-in day-out, he reckoned he had offered important advice at critical moments … on perhaps a dozen occasions.   On many of these his advice had been good, as events had shown.  A handful of times, however, subsequent events had proved him wrong.  … [he] did not suppose [anyone in the FCIO] had ever noticed, let alone recorded, the score. Nobody would have cared if he had always been wrong, and nobody but himself would have known if he had always been right. [His] progress had therefore depended on his competence in the immediately noticeable things – in everything [but whether he had given] what would later turn out to be the right advice.

This happened a good while ago, of course, but not much has changed over recent years.  We still mainly promote clubbable ‘good chaps’ (and female chaps) who are brilliant courtiers and fixers and who don’t startle any horses.  It would be difficult, but not impossible, to change the system, and it would need serious political will.  Maybe, just maybe, Dominic Cummings will provide the necessary pressure?


Martin Stanley

Editor – Understanding Government

Civil Service Training – Good News – But Some Problems Remain

The absence of any serious planning caused unnecessary damage to civil service training – as well as to wider civil service effectiveness – when Lord Maude set about “reforming the civil service” in 2012.

The Public Administration Committee’s latest report on CS training (Strategic Leadership in the Civil Service) provides a useful summary of subsequent developments, including much positive news about current training initiatives.  But it also notes that some serious problems remain.

The report is clearly written and well worth reading in full, and includes interesting evidence from the Better Government Initiative and the Institute for Government.

Here are some key extracts:

Previous Mistakes

“We reiterate the conclusion of our earlier report, as well as those of our predecessor Committees, that, despite its shortcomings, the closure of the National School for Government was premature and left a void that has not been filled. In particular, the need for a dedicated facility where Civil Servants can reflect on their experiences and share them with their peers is as significant now as it was when the Civil Service College was first established. We also note how the closure of National School for Government has made the UK the odd one out, compared with countries such as Australia, Canada, Germany, France, or New Zealand. Most have a permanent institution, dedicated to the learning and development of civil servants. However, the closure of the NSG has also acted as catalyst to some of the positive developments that we go on to discuss [below].

In his written evidence to this inquiry, Julian McCrae (King’s College London) [said that]:

The abolition of the National School of Government (NSG) and replacement with Civil Service Learning (CSL) was probably a mistake, largely because of the serious weaknesses in the CSL model. This included an overly centralised, complex commissioning model. Its provision was also underfunded. For example, e-delivery was used as means of cutting costs, rather than a way of opening access to high quality provision.

Positive Developments

An apparently unintended consequence of Civil Service Learning’s (CSL) shortcomings has been that individual departments and Professions have taken their own steps to address their learning and development issues. This has seen a number of specialist academies established within the Civil Service. The Government lists the current ones as:

  • the Defence Academy;
  • the Government Finance Academy;
  • the Commercial College;
  • the Major Projects Leadership Academy (MPLA);
  • the Government Digital Academy;
  • the Diplomatic Academy; and
  • the HMRC Tax Academy.

In addition to these, there is also the Civil Service Leadership Academy (CSLA), which aims to develop leadership skills in the Senior Civil Service (SCS) grades.  … For the most part, these academies have been established ad hoc, as autonomous operations to address specific requirements, and then run, with limited involvement from CSL even where external partners are involved.

… the National Leadership Centre (NLC) has also been established as a separate initiative to address senior leadership capability across the wider public service.

But Problems Remain …

Sir Richard Mottram (BGI) posed the question:  … who is the individual in the top management of the Civil Service whose day job is to answer the question, “Are the leadership and development plans and programmes and the philosophy of the Civil Service up to scratch?  He confessed that he did not know the answer and that the “governance of all of this is really quite unclear and probably not sufficiently strong”.

We share Sir Richard Mottram’s view that the governance of learning and development is:   disjointed and fragmented, with lots of different organisations who do not appear to have any meaningful self-standing status that requires them to report what they are up to and how they measure their performance. Who at the centre of Government is leading this part of the Civil Service vision? It is opaque to me.

… including with the CSLA/NLC Relationship

The CSLA has been active since its establishment but still has no permanent location. … There [also] remain outstanding issues to resolve with the NLC before it becomes operational. Furthermore, we have found no evidence that thought has been given to the way in which these two bodies complement the professional academies.

The Government’s [told us] that “Our model is built on a system of dedicated professional academies”, but we could not find anyone who is accountable for this “model” or who has designed or has a settled concept for such a “system”.

As the plans for the NLC have progressed, it has become apparent that it will not play the coordinating role for the Civil Service the Minister seemed to suggest. The NLC’s remit will be both narrower and broader than the CSLA’s. Its focus is narrower insofar as it is aimed exclusively at the most senior levels in each sector: those “very close to the top of the pyramid”.  It will be broader because it will not be focussed on leadership in the Civil Service alone.

We welcome the establishment of the National Leadership Centre (NLC). For a learning body with a prospective market of fewer than 2000 people, the NLC’s £21 million budget is generous. We are not critical of this—if it achieves even a small improvement in public service productivity, it will easily cover its costs. However, in comparison with the much smaller amounts given to the Civil Service Leadership Academy, the budget is striking.”


Martin Stanley

Editor – Understanding Government






Jeremy Corbyn, Tony Benn & The Civil Service

Daniel Finkelstein’s article in The Times this morning draws attention to possible future friction between Jeremy Corbyn and the Civil Service, and mentions the 1970s disputes between Tony Benn and his officials.  But I would draw the opposite conclusion from Mr Benn’s experience, and suggest that Mr Corbyn might have an easier ride than he expects.

Mr Benn’s problem was that he was sharply at odds with Prime Minister Harold Wilson, and most of the rest of the Cabinet.  He didn’t want them to know what he was up to, and hated it when his officials (in his view) communicated with other departments behind his back. But civil servants are accountable to the government as a whole – and in particular to a Cabinet bound together by collective responsibility.   It is absolutely forbidden (with one minor exception) for Ministers to ask officials to hide things from interested Ministers and officials in other departments, nor may they ask them to help circumvent collective discussion, e.g. by announcing a ‘decision’ whilst a Cabinet colleague remains opposed to it.

A Corbyn (or Johnson/Hunt) led government would not therefore face the same problem.  The civil service machine would do its best to deliver policies approved by the Prime Minster and Cabinet – and would do its best to help Ministers defend those policies in Parliament.  Mr Corbyn’s enemies might well regret the efficiency (if not the zeal) with which civil  servants would implement a left wing agenda.

As Danny Finkelstein notes, Tony Benn believed that officials should be directly accountable to Parliament, and not to ‘the establishment’ – aka the government of the day.  But I very much doubt whether Mr Corbyn, or any other Prime Minster, will so readily hand over the reins of power in this way.

It is also worth recording that relations between Mr Been and his officials were not quite as bad as often reported.  There was a quite moving exchange of letters when Mr Benn was reshuffled, including this from his Permanent Secretary. (whom Mr Benn had visited when in hospital)

“Granted the political balance within the Cabinet, you were bound to face your senior advisers with some difficult problems, but … we enjoyed the challenges and the stimulation, and you were generous in your appreciation of the support that you received on such key subjects as the Industry Bill and the Post Office. …  We admired your outstanding skill in communication (even when, occasionally, we were worried about what you were communication) and the deftness of your drafting. “

Martin Stanley

Editor – Understanding Government   and  Understanding the Civil  Service

Data Driven Regulation

I am pleased to be able to publish this guest blog by Paul Hazell.

Regulation tends to only get noticed when it fails. Examples of that are appalling care in a hospital; a plane crashes; a run on a bank; or a poor student experience. But good regulation and effective oversight should mean none of this happens.

Regulation, it has to be said, can be dry and technical. The regulation of higher education, particularly in England, is no different. It’s about conditions, thresholds, risk and data.

How then to make regulation interesting and engaging? This is important if the student experience matters to us and we’re concerned about value for money and quality.

Well, within the higher education sector, regulators have looked at how others do regulation and what we might learn from their experience.1  Research of this sort is typically used to develop policy and expert thinking. But has this brought regulation to life, so that we engage and take notice? Probably not.

Higher education is not just about research, though. It’s about people. And great things tend to happen when bright people come together to learn, develop and share new knowledge. Talking – particularly with people who have different experience and expertise – can bring a dry topic to life. It can help personalise a topic so that we can see how it affects our lives. Talking can help us see something in a new, fresh way.

So that’s what I did. I spoke to two people who really know about regulation, risk and data. Their key message is this: data driven regulation works well if its limitations are recognised and mitigated.

Andrew Dilnott

Andrew was the chairman of the UK Statistics Authority and the founding presenter of Radio 4’s ‘More or less’. He’s now the Warden of Nuffield College, Oxford.

The key risk of data driven regimes, Andrew said, is the gaming of metrics and data.

To mitigate this risk, pick five pieces of data at random but don’t tell the regulated what they are. Then report on their performance against that data set. Next, after a few years, change the audited data but don’t tell your stakeholders what the new data are. This approach can help mitigate some of the risks – such as Goodhart’s law – associated with targets.

Related to this point, data driven regimes need high quality data. This is vital. Big and prohibitive penalties for poor data can help assure the quality of data regulators receive.

While there are no magic bullets with data driven regulation, when done right there are real benefits. These include accountability; identifying and improving weak institutions; public information to inform choice; and improving quality across the board.

Martin Stanley

Martin Stanley was a senior civil servant and former Chief Executive of the Competition Commission and the Better Regulation Executive.  He now edits Understanding Government.

Martin said that data is an excellent regulatory tool, but we need to be aware of and work with its limitations. A good understanding of risks, and a fair degree of regulatory wisdom, can help isolate the signal from the noise in the data.

Regulators also need investigatory powers. It’s important to check, verify and audit what’s been said or reported.

Regulators should also keep their ear to the ground, listen to what’s being said and what their industry’s chatter is. This should be a key part of the regulatory mix: this sort of intelligence can provide early warnings about non-compliance in providers, or wider sectoral issues.

And going native is a danger for any regulator. Warning signs – often used in co-regulatory regimes like higher education – include over long and technical consultation processes and giving notice of inspection visits.

Summing up

Used with care and thought, data and regulation work very well together. But, to quote the Quality Assurance Agency’s research, data ‘can distort if not applied carefully; education is a complex activity which places some limitations on the use of such technologies.’[1]

In this context, checks and balances in the regulatory framework for higher education can help mitigate the risks associated with wholly data driven regimes. These include:

  • the Office for Student’s data assurance regime[2]
  • a breach of the regulatory framework for poor quality data returns[3] and initial and ongoing conditions of registration[4]
  • powers of entry and search
  • data supporting (not replacing) qualitative assessment in the Teaching Excellence Framework.[5]

Data is a fantastic resource when used and interpreted with care. But behind the data and the regulatory theory there are students and their many and varied experiences. This is important. Because it’s students – not numbers – that count.

Paul Hazell
Email  –




[3] See para 54



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