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Policy Propeller: transforming policymaking in the Department for Transport

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The Department for Transport (DfT) is looking to challenge its own thinking and generate fresh policy ideas.

In August 2016, the department launched ‘Policy Propeller’ as part of the novel Learning & Development process. It was inspired by the experience of Pauline Reeves, a Senior Civil Service (SCS) participant in Cambridge University’s Policy Fellowship scheme.

Pauline was influenced by the academic input of the fellowship in suggesting a change in the policy direction on encouraging more people to cycle. She believed that other DfT policy staff should have the opportunity to experience the same stimulus and challenge that she had experienced through the Policy Fellowship.

The Policy Propeller scheme is a bespoke, departmentally funded scheme for DfT policy professionals, supported by DfT’s Executive Committee of Directors General and the Permanent Secretary. It has been developed in collaboration with Cambridge University’s Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP), whose mission is to improve public policy through the more effective use of evidence and expertise. 

The scheme consists of cohorts of up to 10 DfT policy professionals sourced from talent grids and nominated by directors. Its aim is to spark a mutually beneficial dialogue between the policy professionals and CSaP’s wide range of researchers, academics and fellows. CSaP organises workshops for the Propeller programme, providing a forum for policy professionals to discuss high-priority issues and network with researchers.

Group of people seated at meeting
Meeting of DfT Policy Propeller Cohort 2, on smart infrastructure

These workshops allow decision-makers to test and shape their thinking by working through specific policy challenges with researchers. And networking can help to build longer-term connections between CSaP members in the academic/research community and the policymakers, supporting the sharing of good practice for evidence-informed policy-making.

The making of Cohort 1

Every Policy Propeller cohort is allocated a director sponsor and a policy challenge. The aim of the scheme is to widen the experience of policymakers’ sources of evidence and their focus on academic research, and to exchange knowledge/skills with CSaP’s contacts.

Each cohort part takes in three pairs of workshops, each pair addressing a different policy issue identified in advance by DfT.

Following every pair of workshops, teams present their findings to DfT ExCo (Executive Committee) and the DfT Policy Profession Steering Group, pitching policy solutions in partnership with their academic colleagues for the department to try out.

People around a table with charts and post-it notes
Policy Propeller workshop in progress

The first policy challenge to be set was the commitment in the 2015 Conservative Party manifesto to double the number of cycling stages (i.e. cycling as part of one point-to-point journey) from 800 million to 1.6 billion by 2025. This was combined with a later commitment for cycling to become the default for short journeys, aimed towards the 2040s.

The workshops

Two workshops were held in Cambridge. The first focused on interaction with academics from CEDAR (Centre for Diet and Activity Research). They have created a Propensity to Cycle Tool to visualise evidence of cycle usage, and to inform the public (and policy officials) on existing measures of cycling data. This also provided an opportunity to network with PhD students. Two small groups were formed to examine both the 2025 and the 2040 targets. Working with CEDAR researchers, the teams explored some of the barriers, opportunities, trends and evidence gaps to address some of the difficulties thrown up by the policy commitment.

The second workshop centred on refining the identified options and the advice on developing proposals and preparing pitches from experts in the field.

Between the workshops, discussions were held to address the options and the pitch session, and a chronological ideas planning process was conducted.

The workshops were completed as part of the officials’ ‘day jobs’, and the enthusiasm and commitment of the teams was highly commended. Cohort 1 ultimately influenced the Government’s first statutory cycling and walking strategy, published in May 2017.

Two cohorts, each of 10 DfT staff (with additional CSaP members), have been completed since the launch of the Propeller scheme. A further cohort followed last autumn.

DfT is so pleased with the outcomes that it wants to replicate the scheme, and is extending a tailored programme at Executive Officer level and making this part of the overall talent management and capability strategy for the department.

Having senior buy-in from members of the DfT ExCo was and remains crucial to the scheme’s adoption and continuation. They act as the final panel to approve policy ideas, some of which may feed into current policy thinking around the issues in question.

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