Lessons from history: can the COVID crisis boost science skills in government?

By on 04/02/2022 | Updated on 10/02/2022
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Criticisms about the lack of science skills in the UK civil service have been acknowledged by the government’s top official. Do previous crisis show how Whitehall can adapt?

In November 2021 Dame Kate Bingham, who had headed the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce, launched a series of attacks on government, Whitehall and the civil service.

Bingham was seen as having been highly successful in helping the UK to become one of the first countries to roll out mass vaccinations against COVID-19, so her criticisms were widely reported.

They were given added weight when the current head of the UK civil service and cabinet secretary, Simon Case, wrote to The Times saying that Bingham was “correct in her assessment of the lack of skills and experience in science, industry and manufacturing across government”. He added government needed to bring in “more outside expertise from business, industry and academia – more Dame Kates”.

But were either of them being fair, or even accurate, in their criticisms? And even if they are correct, what can be done about it? And what has been tried already?

READ MORE: Civil service ‘reverting back to bureaucratic norms’ after COVID innovation, says ex-UK vaccine chief

How crises have transformed Whitehall

The COVID pandemic has undoubtedly been a severe crisis, requiring a national mobilisation of public, private and voluntary resources not seen since World War II.

Which leads to the thought: are there lessons from WWII? And how does the Covid response compare?

Luckily in 1985 Peter (now Lord) Hennessy – the UK’s foremost historian of Whitehall – and Professor Sir Douglas Hague – then chair of the ESRC – wrote a fascinating paper on “How Adolf Hitler Reformed Whitehall” – with important lessons about how to get more expertise into government. We will come back to this.

Some of what Bingham, especially, said has been taken out of context and/or cherry-picked by some on the right of politics who are generally hostile to Whitehall.

It is noticeable, for example, that whilst the article Bingham wrote for The Times was highly critical of ‘government’ it was seen mainly as an attack on the civil service.

But many of the specific issues she mentions – lack of science expertise in government; government hostility towards the life sciences industry; failure to establish something like the US’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA); and a specific decision to cancel one vaccine contract – were political or policy decisions for which ministers are mainly responsible, not civil servants.

A leading bio-medical expert told me that BARDA “primarily has an anti-terrorism remit (albeit broadened more recently to vaccines, stockpiling, etc.), so I’m not sure that it is the best model for us”.

They added that “there is no doubt that we need better joining up of research, development, pharma and government, but there are numerous ways we are trying to do this (including the creation of UKRI, the role of science ministers, Council for Science & Technology, Advanced Research and Invention Agency etc.).”

Both Bingham and Case also ignore the long history of discussions about the role of science and other expertise in government. One thing is certain – they are not the first to identify the problem. Not by decades.

Hennessy and Hague point out that between the two world wars some parts of Whitehall were thinking about what went wrong in the first Great War.

These people – mostly civil servants but some politicians too – concluded that Britain had been wrong to allow its ‘best and brightest’ to sign up and sent to the killing fields in Europe. So they started developing plans to better use talent where it would be most useful in the era of ‘total war’ – building the capacities of Britain’s war machine.

Know your talent

In the run up to World War II the formidable civil servant Beryl Power developed a system for identifying talented individuals from a range of scientific (including social science) backgrounds who could be brought into government service in the event of war.

Known as the ‘Central Registry’, by the outbreak of war in 1939 tens of thousands of people – mainly men and mainly, but not solely, from universities – were in the elaborate system of card indexes held by Power and her team. When the war did start this system played a key role in mobilising Britain’s expertise for the war effort.

One lesson from this experience is that when the Covid pandemic hit there was no similar preparation or system in place. Far from mobilising existing talent through a well-developed system, all sorts of ad hoc and often less than optimum systems had to be built almost from scratch.

After WWII most of the “irregulars”, as Hennessy and Hague called the experts brought into government service, returned to their normal jobs and Whitehall returned to ‘normal’. They concluded that this was a mistake and that at least some of the should have continued.

Instead, from WWII onwards there has been a running debate and perdiodic attempts at reform of Whitehall to change the balance between ‘specialists and generalists’ as it became generally known.

These debates rumbled on, in part through developments like the Fulton Committee (1968); the ‘Next Steps’ reforms (1988); Professional Skills for Government (2004); and most recently the introduction of ‘functional groups’ under the coalition government (2010-15).

The initiatives have had some impact and there are lot more specialists – often recruited externally – in the UK civil service today. An Institute for Government report published in April 2021 demonstrates what progress has been made (even if it is a little over optimistic in my opinion).

So the issue of the need for more specialist expertise – including from academia, industry, and the main parts of the public service – is not and never has been unrecognised. The real question is why are the ‘generalists’ still so dominant Whitehall, even if there has been some change at the top?

READ MORE: UK civil service lacks science skills, admits cabinet secretary

Skills inside or outside government?

One other important difference between the experience of WWII and the Covid response concerns the organisation of the mobilisation.

In WWII the mobilisation was very much about bringing the ‘outside’ in. It was about bringing the “irregulars” into a (reorganised) machinery of government to work alongside the regulars. It produced some spectacular results in fields like radar, cryptography, specialist armaments, psychological warfare, camouflage, espionage, and so on.

The response to Covid has been very different. As Bingham herself points out the Covid Vaccine Task Force was funded by government but organised almost entirely outside of normal government structures (and controls).

The same is true of NHS Test & Trace which was set up in parallel to, and outside, existing central and local government structures. Between them these two major parallel publicly funded but largely privately-run structures were equivalent in size to the biggest government departments, if not bigger.

One of Bingham’s main complaints about Whitehall itself was that it was too risk-averse and process oriented. In a crisis like the Covid pandemic, speed, flexibility and outcomes mattered more than worrying about process and press or parliamentary scrutiny, but the extent to which this strategy ‘worked’ is open to debate.

The roll-out of vaccines in the UK was undoubtedly a success but as one leading biomedical expert told me “Although we were perfectly placed for a vaccine rollout, and initially we responded almost as well as anywhere in the world, we have slackened off. We are now middle of the pack, hence the mess we are in.  We have been slow at almost every stage, including vaccinating kids and providing boosters. These were political decisions I’m afraid.”

On the metrics that Kate Bingham favours, outcomes, the picture is less rosy. The UK has had one of the highest death rates from Covid in Europe.

That is due to a range of policies – not just how expertise was mobilised, or not, through the Vaccines Task Force, Test & Trace, and other mechanisms like SAGE and Public Health England. These all need proper evaluation and not superficial (and ahistorical) ‘lessons’ based on personal experience and, dare I say, prejudices?

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About Colin Talbot

Colin Talbot is emeritus professor of government at the University of Manchester and a research associate at the University of Cambridge

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