Hi everyone, I’m hugely grateful to colleagues in the Cabinet Office for inviting me to say a few words to all of you today.
Over the course of the last 11 years, I’ve worked in a variety of government departments and two things have been reinforced in my mind. One, my admiration for everyone who works in our Civil Service – for their dedication to serving the public, their hard work, their imagination, their energy. And, on top of my admiration for the Civil Service, my recognition that in order for all of us – ministers and civil servants – to deliver for the country, the most valuable currency we have is data. The single most important thing to consider – when we think about any policy intervention, when we think about subsidising or supporting, when we think about restricting or regulating – the most important thing is: is that intervention working? It doesn’t matter how persuasive the argument might be in Parliament. It doesn’t matter how loud the media chorus is in favour or against a particular initiative. What really matters is what changes people’s lives for the better.
So whether I’ve been in education, justice, environment or here now at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), there is one thing I want to know. I want to know if the resources we’re deploying, the regulation we’ve put in place, the changes that we’ve brought about and argued, actually deliver for those who matter. That is why the work of the Evaluation Task Force (ETF) is so important. Again, there can be a political debate in Parliament or in the media about the wisdom of this or that policy, but what will really prevail in the end is the durable change that improves people’s lives for the better.
When I was at the Department for Education (DFE). I was hugely grateful to the Civil Service team that came up with the idea of the Education Endowment Foundation, an independent body backed by charitable donations but endowed initially with taxpayer money, ensured that we could look at each initiative being brought forward and assess them against a basic set of criteria. Seeing if these interventions actually improved outcomes for children. Are children in a position where they have the knowledge, the skills, the confidence, and the ability to be authors of their own life stories? Similarly, when I was at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), the question that I wanted to ask was: is our criminal justice system helping to keep people safe? Is it the case that the interventions that we put in place in prisons to encourage rehabilitation are being cost-effective? But also, do they help transform people’s opportunities? Do they help people who have been liabilities in society – people who brought misery to others, and have broken lives themselves – to repair their lives so that they can then become assets to society as well?
Of course, at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) data is everything. Is it the case that we are contributing effectively towards cleaner air to making sure that our rivers are restored to health? Are we, in a measurable way, reducing carbon dioxide so that our planet can survive in the future with the threat of global warming?
And when I was at the Cabinet Office dealing with the COVID pandemic, we relied on so many colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and elsewhere, who were doing superhuman things. The question always was: what is the data telling us? How can we visualise and understand and respond to a crisis which was for all of us? This is perhaps one of the biggest challenges that we’ve faced in government. The Evaluation Task Force has been doing great work since it was established in making sure that the culture of data, the discipline of facts, governs the operation of policy. That is why I’m so grateful to Catherine [Head of the Evaluation Task Force] and her team for the leadership that they have shown.
For data to work for the Evaluation Task Force, to be empowered across government it needs ministers to recognise the vital importance of the work you do. And that’s why I’m so glad that CDL, my friend Steve, has put data at the heart of the government delivery strategy in the months and years ahead.
Ultimately, when it comes to making decisions what really will drive politicians is the knowledge that their time in office, however brief or long, has made a difference for the better. You are the people who can ensure that we are kept honest, that we put ego aside, and that we concentrate (with appropriate humility but also appropriate energy) on making sure that we learn. As we do, we refine, we improve, and we enhance delivery for the country. Ultimately, everything that we do is directed towards that end: improving the lives of our citizens, making sure that everyone in this country can flourish, making sure that they can be all they can be. It is data, evaluation and rigour that are at the heart.
Thank you all very much. Thank you to the Evaluation Task Force for organising this conference, and good luck to you all. I really look forward to working with all of you, as I know my ministerial colleagues do, to do even better in the future.