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Sean O'Connor

18 August 2021, 4:10 UTC Share

Avoiding ‘groupthink’ in policy making

The former Head of Global Projects and Policy at Queen Mary University of London reflects on a career in academic-policy engagement and the benefits of avoiding ‘group think’

The timing of this blog, written during the twilight of my role at Queen Mary University of London, finds me in a reflective mood. My next role will be in the UK civil service, so having spent much of the last decade as an outsider seeking to shape the thinking of UK and overseas governments, I am intrigued to learn how things look from the other side of the fence.

As part of my preparatory reading, I am working my way through Anthony King and Ivor Crewe’s The Blunders of our Governments , which is by turns alarming, comic and instructive in its exposition of the many and varied ways in which policy-making and policy-makers – even the smartest of people with the very best of intentions (perhaps particularly the smartest of people with the best of intentions) can end up committing catastrophic errors of either policy design or implementation.

One of the more common pitfalls the authors identify in their analysis of policy missteps ranging from Individual Learning Accounts (which failed to foresee the risk of fraudulent claims, at immense cost to the taxpayer) to the London Underground Private Finance Initiative (a victim of its own labyrinthine contractual complexity) is that of ‘group-think’ . First described in such terms by the Yale psychologist Irving Janis, this refers to the phenomenon whereby the desire for harmony and the disinclination to ‘rock the boat’ within a team can lead to irrational or dysfunctional decisions.

Thanks to organisations like UPEN, the efforts of engaged academics and knowledge exchange professionals, virtual meeting technologies, and – more recently – the function of the pandemic in boosting the public perception of ‘experts’, it has become more routine for officials to seek out and to make active use of diverse sources of external expertise beyond Whitehall, whether through official consultation and listening exercises or via other channels. The development of departmental ‘Areas of Research Interest’ is one example of government seeking to more transparently and coherently set out key policy questions or issues of interest, and to invite people who are knowledgeable about those topics to help shape future departmental thinking (as many reading this may be aware, UPEN has a dedicated sub-committee focusing specifically on ‘ARIs’). The academic and research community in our universities is of course a vital constituency in this process.

Alongside the value of expert dialogue from seasoned experts, there are also significant advantages to be had in involving early-career researchers and current students who, with fresh eyes on a problem, can offer a distinctive contribution to the knowledge exchange process (and help diminish the risk of what Anthony King and Ivor Crewe call ‘cultural disconnect’, where younger demographics are the intended recipient or target of a policy proposal).

Between January and April of 2021, colleagues and I hosted five Queen Mary postgraduate students for a virtual internship with the Queen Mary Global Policy Institute. As citizens of Argentina, Kenya, India, the Philippines and Croatia, our ‘Policy Associates’ brought a genuine diversity of thought, opinion and experience to the programme which provided a welcome breath of fresh air amidst grey January skies and the now familiar spin cycle of online meetings.

We worked hard to create opportunities for our Associates to get actively involved in ongoing academic research which mirrored their stated interests and ongoing postgraduate studies. Two among them were attached to a research group mapping the implications of the pandemic for Digital Justice and the relationship between citizens and the state; others collated evidence of the way in which governments worldwide had used expertise to inform their Covid-19 response; yet another project the Associates worked on examined migration patterns under the pandemic and the role of civil society organisations in Brazil in India.

Queen Mary academics generously invested the necessary time to engage the Associates as equal members of their teams, with the result that all five were able to make an outstanding contribution to the projects and promotion of the research findings. The Associates also brought forward several brilliant proposals of their own devising for policy briefings, blogs and submissions on topics including the COP 26 process, tackling racial inequality, and girls’ access to education.

Our Policy Associates were kind enough to record short video testimonials about their time at the Queen Mary Global Policy Institute, which many described as a highlight of their time at the university. They are a wonderful, talented group of people and I encourage you to hear from them directly at the following link , and to consider what more can be done to create policy learning and engagement opportunities for students and early-career academics at your own institution.

Sean O’Connor is (until early August 2021) Head of Global Projects and Policy at Queen Mary University of London, and a member of the leadership team at the Queen Mary Global Policy Institute.

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