A new capacity to understand our own situation

Geraint Talfan Davies pinpoints one manifesto proposal that might transform our understanding of our economy and society

Amidst all the proposals put forward in the four manifestos of the main parties in Wales – a total of 262 pages and 70,000 words – there is one proposal that stands out from all the others. It will not be remarked upon in the media debates, and even the candidates whose party has proposed it are unlikely to mention it in their leaflets, but it is the one proposal that may yet indicate more surely than all others that the 2011 election marks a maturing of Welsh democracy. And it has nothing to do with law-making powers.

On page 22 of the Labour manifesto, in the chapter on Standing up for Public Services in Wales, there is a single paragraph under the heading ‘Public Policy’. It reads:

“We need to develop the engagement of the wider Welsh civil society, including the higher education sector, with the Assembly Government’s policy-making process. In order to create greater critical mass in high quality, strategic public policy making and research, we will establish a pan-Wales public policy institute.”

A Welsh public policy institute should have been established decades ago. Its absence, along with the failure of Welsh universities to plug the gap, was the primary reason why the IWA was established on a voluntary basis nearly 25 years ago. We were joined in 2001 by a similar voluntary organisation, the Bevan Foundation.  We have filled a large gap in Wales’s civic capacity, connecting policy makers with business, academia and a wider public, but despite some real policy achievements (here), there are limits to what either organisation can achieve on a systematic basis, on the back of limited voluntary funding and staffing.

The Assembly had been up and running for nearly ten years – a sign of the tardy  response to devolution by most Welsh universities – before the establishment in 2009 of WISERD (the Welsh Institute of Social and Economic Research and Development), a consortium of social scientists from five Welsh universities. It was a real step forward, but it has yet to make its mark on policy.

In the early years of the Assembly the IWA argued the case for a much larger – and independent – research capacity, in both the economic and social fields. I myself put the case in a lecture to a civil service audience, some of whom dismissed it as an implied criticism of themselves. We needed urgently to transform our capacity to analyse our own situation.

In 2001, Jim Driscoll, an adviser to the Assembly’s Economic Development Committee, made such a proposal in his draft report, but it was dropped from the final report in favour of creating an Economic Policy Board. The Welsh Government rejected both ideas. At the time it was nervous of creating an independent capacity that might be challenging, a nervousness that it has been slow to conquer. It proposed instead a research programme and an internal research and evaluation unit, albeit assisted by an Economic Research Advisory Panel. This panel still exists, and its remit encourages it to advise on capacity building measures – one part of its remit where, in ten whole years, very little has been achieved.

The real test for the Welsh Labour proposal, will be not only the scale of funding made available to the new institute, but also the extent of its independence. It must have a capacity to initiate research other than at the behest and under the control of government. There needs to be a debate about its form.

Ten years ago the IWA was much influenced by the example of Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Institute – ESRI, a substantial, multi-disciplinary body established as far back as 1960, with funding from the Ford Foundation before the Irish Government put it on a permanent footing. It is a model still worth studying. It is a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee, which has some 300 members drawn from companies and organisations across Ireland. It is run by a Council of 13, that includes a senior civil servant from the Irish Government’s Department of Finance as well as the Director General of Ireland’s Central Statistics Office. In 2009 it had a staff of 111 persons.

But, importantly, it has always insisted on its academic independence, and this is helped by the fact that its core grant-in-aid – €3.3 million in 2009 – represents only 22 per cent of its total income of €14.5 million, and that it insists that all its research, including that contracted by companies is placed in the public domain (a principle to which the IWA, too, has always adhered.)  The remainder of its income comes from research agreements with government departments, state agencies, international bodies such as the European Commission and private business. Interestingly, its income from members’ subscriptions –  €88,760 – is actually less than the membership income of the IWA.

Labour’s proposed Welsh public policy institute will need a core budget of at least £1million at the outset, but it should be possible to find this sum from existing budgets. The Welsh Government already has a substantial research budget, and there is no shortage of people willing to argue that it is not always deployed to best effect, and that some research budgets are often not fully spent. Some funding could be found simply by out-sourcing much policy evaluation work, of which an unhealthy amount has been kept in-house in the Assembly’s first decade.

Any new Institute must, inevitably, be connected to Government, but it should not sit within the Government machine. It must be free to challenge, and our political culture should be mature enough to live with those challenges and attentive enough to respond to them. It must think beyond immediate political agendas and horizons. As the first Director of the ESRI, R.C Geary put it, “the popularity or otherwise of the researchers’ findings is not a consideration, provided that these findings are soundly based and cogently argued.”

It must also, equally inevitably, be connected to our universities, but it should not sit within higher education. It needs to be free of the pressures of the research assessment exercises that have been such a barrier to the promotion of Wales-related research. By sitting outside higher education, yet working with it, it will, nevertheless, be a spur to further research on Wales within our universities, just as in Ireland the ESRI proved a spur to the deepening of the pool of expertise in economic and social research both in the universities and in private consultancies.

Such an institute does need to be part of our civil society and to connect fully with it, as the Labour manifesto acknowledges. In this way a properly funded and constituted institute could bring depth and rigour to our policy-making and provide a holistic focus on our economic and social aims that can transcend the seemingly insurmountable departmental divisions of government. It should mobilise more fully the nation’s intellectual resources, and increase the hunger for as well as the supply of knowledge and ideas.

This is one idea that I hope the next Welsh Government, whatever its colour, will implement with speed and a bold generosity.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA.

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