Blame games: how can blossoming policy-research relations survive the COVID-19 recriminations?

The fact that public accountability generally comes cloaked in a ‘Gotcha!’ mentality threatens the spirit of collaboration that has developed during the pandemic. Matthew Flinders asks how to ensure positive new partnerships are not shattered by the stresses of scrutiny

As a discipline, political science has always focused attention on the role of crises, disasters and fiascos, in terms of creating ‘windows of opportunity’ in which the restraints of the past are suddenly cast aside in light of the demands of the present and future.

The silos of organisational structures, the institutional stickiness of established ways of working, competitive incentives that generally prevent the sharing of knowledge, the bureaucratic barriers that in normal times would ensure conformity trumps innovation, partisan playground politics … all can be pushed aside in the midst of a major crisis.

As Stephen Reicher argued in this IPPO blog, the Coronavirus crisis has sparked an unprecedented coming together in which academics, policymakers, funders and the whole research ecosystem have demonstrated a level of flexibility, ambition and collective endeavour that – if we are honest – would never have been possible in more normal times.

‘This renewed spirit of collaboration,’ Reicher suggested, ‘is one of the few positive things to come out of these terrible times – and hopefully something we can preserve as the pandemic recedes’.

And yet the debate about knowledge exchange, policy engagement, research utilisation – call it what you will – is too often limited by a focus on the cultures that dominate in the academic sphere and in the policy sphere. What this ‘two cultures’ approach too often fails to appreciate is the existence of a dominant political culture which is arguably the biggest threat to maintaining the ‘renewed spirit of collaboration’ once the COVID-crisis recedes.

The shadow of this third, political culture, and the potentially pathological effects it may have, needs to be recognised if the new relationships between the academic, policy and political worlds are to be retained and built-upon.

Over the past 18 months or so, the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis have provided a critical focal point that has, to a large extent, aligned the interests of researchers, policymakers and politicians. In a post-COVID context, however, new forces are likely to emerge which place huge pressure on different actors, thereby revealing the existence of very different incentive systems and interpretations of loyalty.

The biggest threat to continued collaboration

The biggest threat which has the potential to divide academics, policymakers and politicians in a post-COVID context are not those important issues raised by Reicher (namely time, imperfect information and forms of knowledge) but blame.

With more than 150,000 deaths recorded from COVID-19, the UK experience of the pandemic demands investigation – and a public inquiry is the right way to do this. The Prime Minister has accepted this point and announced that an inquiry will be launched in the Spring of 2022. The challenge this presents, however, is that in the British context – with its highly adversarial low-trust, high-blame culture – we are very bad at undertaking balanced, proportionate lesson-learning exercises that highlight both the successes and failures of policy responses or political decisions.

Accountability in the minds of officials, politicians and probably an increasing number of lead scientific experts will be synonymous with a search for scapegoats and sacrificial lambs. Even if the independent inquiry does produce a reasoned piece of balanced analysis and judgment, it is likely to be picked apart by opposition parties, aggrieved interest groups, and a media infrastructure that firmly believes that ‘only bad news sells’.

The massive literature on blame-games, blame-boomerangs and blame-deflection explains the sophisticated institutional and presentational strategies that politicians and officials are likely to use to make themselves ‘Teflon-coated’. But where does that leave the experts, scientists and researchers that stood – often quite literally – by their side?

The fact that public accountability generally comes cloaked in a ‘Gotcha!’ mentality may well ensure that the positive relationships (high trust, low cost) that have been built over the past 18 months do not last once the COVID threat recedes.

I hope I am wrong. But politicians, their advisers and senior officials will be well aware of the need to ensure that they are not in the firing line when the inquiry begins. Bullets must be dodged, cans must not be carried… With this in mind, one of the most enlightening – and worrying – elements of Dominic Cummings’ recent parliamentary committee appearances was his belief that the Secretary of State for Health had used the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, and England’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, as a ‘shield’ for government failings during Downing Street press conferences.

Cummings’ evidence was, of course, a strategic salvo in a rapidly unfolding blame game. But it also demonstrated that to ensure positive new partnerships are not shattered by the stresses of scrutiny, the accountability challenge must somehow be recast as an accountability opportunity – an opportunity to build upon and extend the innovations and new partnerships while at the same time forging greater public understanding of the politics-policy-research nexus.

A step-change in understanding of science and politics

I think the key to avoiding a witch hunt or populist ‘pitchfork politics’ in the aftermath of the pandemic revolves around the notion of ‘anticipatory’ or ‘entrepreneurial’ accountability. Waiting in their bunkers (be that university labs, bureaucratic basements or ministerial meeting rooms) for the accountability industry to unleash itself with far-reaching demands for simplistic forms of sacrificial responsibility is not a good idea.

Far better to build upon the positive relationships and learning that has occurred within and around the politics-policy-research nexus, in order to proactively nurture an honest and balanced public conversation about the limits and potential of both science and politics.

Science, just like politics, cannot deliver simple solutions to complex problems. You cannot simply ‘follow’ the science as if it offers an unequivocal direction of travel. If it is judged against such expectations then science will, like politics, always fail.

Instead, a step-change in the public’s understanding of both science and politics (and their interplay) could be one of the most ‘positive things to come out of these terrible times’, to paraphrase Stephen Reicher.

A public conversation might even dare to suggest that blame does not have to be bad. Holding people to account can involve the distribution of credit as well as culpability. There is a positive story to be told alongside the exploration of serious errors and misjudgments.

COVID-19 was a completely new virus and decisions had to be taken under huge pressure, and on the basis of imperfect information. Yet within weeks of the new virus emerging, its genome had been sequenced and specific tests developed. Within a year, new vaccines had been tested, approved and rolled out through mass testing. The allocation of blame needs to sit within an acknowledgement of these broader achievements.

This is where the interests of politicians, policymakers and politicians remain aligned as the threat of COVID-19 recedes. The potential pathologies of public accountability and the destructive effects on careers, professions and future pandemic preparedness that blame-games will bring is now the glue that binds them together.

To make the case for the adoption of an early, ambitious, honest and balanced approach to public engagement – with academies, learned societies and funders playing a proactive intermediary role – is probably the only way that the ‘unprecedented coming together’ which occurred during the COVID crisis will not fall apart once it recedes.

Matthew Flinders is Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield and Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre. He is Chair of the Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN)