UK energy policymakers should learn from overseas and gather external advice, report finds

By on 09/12/2020
The UK has made good progress in energy policy, such as in offshore wind. But elsewhere there have been “a series of abrupt reversals, false starts and failures”, according to the IfG. Credit: chpv.co.uk/SSE/RWE on Flickr.

The UK government should learn lessons from Canada, Germany, France and the Netherlands to improve its energy policymaking, according to new research by the Institute for Government (IfG) think tank.

The report compares the UK’s use of evidence in energy policymaking to the approaches of Germany, France, the Netherlands and Canada. It finds that while the UK has made “good progress” in some areas – such as offshore wind – it has also suffered from “a series of abrupt reversals, false starts and failures”. It said that the government’s Green Deal, which helps homeowners pay for energy efficiency improvements, “has been intensively studied as a textbook policy failure.”

With ambitious net zero goals set for 2050, the report notes, “the stakes for energy policy are higher than ever” and the UK must “do better in designing energy policy”.

Dr Will McDowall, senior researcher at the IfG, said: “The UK’s model of policy making is expert, but isolated. Our energy department has stronger analytic capacity than many other governments, but it needs to do a better job of talking to people on the outside.”

Internal vs external expertise

The Department for Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in the UK relies heavily on internal capacity and expertise to draw up evidence for policy. While this has “some important benefits”, the report says, it “too often leads BEIS and other government bodies to develop a closed ‘house view’”. This limits what evidence BEIS deems relevant, what policies are considered and who is consulted, the report states.

Government processes can narrow the approach to evidence too. While appraisal guidance fares well when compared internationally, the report says that processes are so well set in that there is an “over-reliance on ways of thinking and measuring policy” that does not match the reality of government action in the energy sector.

This contrasts to the Dutch and German models, which rely more on external advice and analysis. In Germany, for example, multiple parties across varying levels of government and different interest groups are involved in policymaking, it says. All are expected to use high-quality evidence, the report states. This means that experts are more likely to be upfront about their political affiliations and values, and it makes the inevitable trade-offs involved in any policy decision more “explicit”, the IfG says.

In the Dutch system, “external and independent bodies help to ensure the evidence used for policy is credible and transparent”, says the report. Evidence is produced away from government departments, either through independent research centres or using arm’s length bodies.

And though the Canadian system is also largely reliant on internal analysis, concedes the IfG, it is dispersed across the federal and provincial governments.

Advisory bodies

The UK has several advisory bodies on energy policy. These include the Climate Change Committee, an expert panel that advises the government on a range of topics such as targets and carbon budgets, and the National Infrastructure Commission. There are also institutes with close links to government like the Energy Systems Catapult (ESC), established to bridge the gap between industry, government, academia and research, and academic body the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC).

Other countries, however, have advisory bodies for which there is no direct UK equivalent. This means some functions are potentially being missed, according to the IfG. For example, the Council of Canadian Academies gives Canada’s three major scientific institutions a structure through which to comment on strategic, cross-cutting issues related to energy and climate policy.

The IfG also pointed to ADEME in France. While it is a national body, its focus is on supporting local innovation around energy. This means it “strong analytic capacity with detailed, local implementation expertise.”

Likewise, Germany and the Netherlands have a range of advisory bodies, the report says. These are fully or partially independent and “carry out a mixture of their own research and the kind of bespoke policy analysis that would most likely happen internally (or be contracted to consultants) in the UK.”

Recommendations

The IfG spoke to around 40 current and former government officials, energy experts and academics in the UK, and in all the other countries featured.

It recommends that government increase the resource and policy advisory role of the UKERC, to support academic engagement, and the ESC, which offers engineering expertise, links to the private sector and knowledge about local energy issues. This would prevent BEIS becoming too insular, and strengthen its engagement with external sources of evidence and analysis, it says.

Other recommendations included considering pay and career progression for officials and analysts working in energy, alongside publishing more evidence and making appointments to advisory bodies more open.

About Catherine Early

Catherine is a journalist and editor specialising in government policy and regulation. She writes predominantly about environmental issues and has held permanent roles at the Environmentalist (now known as Transform), the ENDS Report, Planning magazine and Windpower Monthly, and has also written for the Guardian, the Ecologist and China Dialogue. She was a finalist in the Guardian’s International Development Journalism competition 2009, and was part of the team that won PPA Business Magazine of the Year 2011 for Windpower Monthly. She also won an outstanding content award at Haymarket Media Group’s employee awards for data-led stories in Planning magazine. She holds a 2:1 honours degree in English language and literature from Birmingham University.

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