TAPAS.network | 8 May 2024 | Editorial Opinion | Peter Stonham

Asking the experts

Peter Stonham

IN WHAT COULD BE SEEN as a positive step for enriching the breadth and depth of the specialist knowledge available to government, the Department for Transport has identified 45 experts to join a new advisory panel. But perhaps more interesting is how it will use them.

There certainly seems to be an ever-expanding list of available expertise being focussed on the transport field - perhaps indicating the importance and complex multi-faceted nature of current challenges.

Constant re-examination of policy and practice to address emerging new circumstances and challenges seems essential.

There can be no ‘established wisdom’ in transport policy in our unstable world now, any more than there was in the 19th century after the industrial revolution and the waves of technological and social change, nor in virtually any decade of the 20th Century, or in the first three of the 21st, when that sequence of change has just rolled forward and accelerated.

A little over 20 years ago a ‘Professors’ Letter’ was sent, in 2002, by a small group of only a couple of dozen senior academics to then Transport Secretary Alastair Darling, expressing their concern about the government’s transport policy at the time. They called for active policy intervention to manage the demand for road space at congested times and places by charging users of all modes of transport for the full costs that each journey imposes on society as a whole. But interestingly, though in retrospect, in might have been appropriate to do so, there was scant emphasis placed on the environmental dimension- and none of the language about addressing Climate change, and achieving de-carbonisation and Net Zero, that so much concerns us today.

Two years ago, in July 2022, in marking the 20th anniversary of the letter, LTT identified the more than 100 professors who were by then either specifically or partially involved with transport activity. In compiling this list, we were surprised at how much this fraternity had expanded in the two decades since the ‘Professors’ Letter’ was sent.

With DfT’s list of those signed up for its new ‘College of Experts’, we can now identify a couple of dozen more professors with an obvious interest in transport issues amongst those invited to bring their insights to decision making. This growing band may expand even further, as it is possinble for others to come forward and apply to join the College of Experts. For those interested,by the way, the standard rate for payment as a member of the College, in line with other Government departments, is £300 per day.

The college is made up of 45 external experts from across academia and industry and is managed by the DFT Chief Scientific Adviser team led by Professor Sarah Sharples.

Those selected will participate in working groups based on specific themes feeding into the department’s areas of research interest and provide ad-hoc advice and support to policy and analytical work, supporting the Chief Scientific Adviser in helping guide and shape policy

DfT says the College is being created to increase its access to scientific networks, broaden its evidence base, identify key areas of research interest for the department, and bolster the provision of scientific advice. Ability to manipulate, analyse and present data, methods, or scientific concepts to a non-technical audience is also sought from the pre-approved experts, from whom the DfT expects to commission short pieces of ad hoc work under contract to provide scientific and technical services.

The main mechanism the Department currently uses to access this kind of expertise is the Science Advisory Council ,which brings together 12 external experts from academia/industry to provide expertise, challenge and advice on a quarterly basis. This small group obviously have limits to their capacity , and cannot cover all skill areas. They instead provide broader cross-cutting strategic advice. For the SAC deep dives, the SAC expertise is supplemented with technical experts in specific areas.

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A key question now, therefore, is how will the DfT capture and deploy all this knowledge and understanding — and can this genuinely improve policy and practice? To what extent does the Department genuinely want input beyond the technical? Or more than that, real challenge to the way it thinks now? To hear awkward questions? Or is it just looking for detailed input, but overall confirmation?

Alongside the SAC and the new College of Experts the Joint Analysis Development Panel (JADP) was established in 2015 to provide expert advice to the DfT on its modelling and appraisal methods and strategies. JADP brings together academic and professional experts with senior departmental analysts. It is co-chaired by DfT’s Chief Analyst and Science Director, Amanda Rowlatt, and Professor Peter Jones, University College London, with ten other academic members, supported by a broader network of subject matter experts who are invited to attend meetings on specific issues.

The new ‘College of Experts’ appointment process was in parallel to the separate appointment of membership of the two JADP advisory committees on analysis and appraisal- done under the auspices of the ‘Chief Analyst’ not the ‘Chief Scientist’. No announcement has been made yet about those appointments. There seems likely to be limited overlap between the people appointed to the College, and those applying for JADP roles, though there could be quite a lot of potential crossover or interaction on topics being explored.

What perhaps do these new expert recruitment processes signify - and what will they deliver?

Building up a remarkably long list of knowledgeable people ,some familiar, but many not, maybe reflects an ambition at the DfT to think more broadly and deeply than hitherto, and possibly reduce spending on consultants.

Hopefully these experts can help advise the DfT on topics such as the prospects for AVs, achieving a decarbonised transport system, the prospects for new mobility solutions and the latest digital developments. But will they be useful in thinking strategically about the interactions between technology and other drivers of policy, and the future shape of the transport system and its use ?

A key question now, therefore, is how will the DfT capture and deploy all this knowledge and understanding — and can this genuinely improve policy and practice?

To what extent does the Department genuinely want input beyond the technical? Or more than that, real challenge to the way it thinks now? To hear awkward questions? Or is it just looking for detailed input , but overall confirmation?

Perhaps these days, there is a sufficiently large number of individual experts of different kinds to mean that those in Government can pick and choose from their opinions and prognoses to suit their desired policy thinking, and bring a veneer of authority and independent approval. Such a ‘pick your own’ approach to opinion certainly seems to be the growing general case in terms of economics and regulation policies, although on matters of engineering there are more fundamental general principles that all professionals subscribe to. Though of course, when it comes to future technologies and their deployment and impact, we may just as much be in the area of personal opinion and speculation when it comes to considering how things will play out.

Only this week, the DfT published some thoughts from its Scientific Advisory Council on transport and land-use planning. Their observations are sensible, but not particularly new, and give a sense of frustration that what could usefully already be done hasn’t been effectively implemented yet. So will this report make any real difference by getting anywhere further to influencing policy and shifting practice about issues that are well known and long standing?

Change seems hard at the DfT. The department’s way of looking at modelling and issues for capture in appraisal, for example, remains traditional and narrow, and therefore unable to fully embrace all the significant new social, economic and environmental forces that are likely to influence, and require change to, the nature of transport activity.

One good example of hidebound thinking is on freight, an area in which it seems, as argued by professor Phil Goodwin in this issue, the DfT’s modelling and appraisal practice does not properly embrace the evolution of the industry’s activity in an area where considerable change is happening. This is an almost entirely commercial sector, with a lot of data used internally within the logistics profession, but seemingly not sufficiently explored by the DfT boffins in transport planning and appraisal.

There are even more fundamental gaps in embracing current and future transport patterns increasingly apparent too. Last week’s High Court judgement on the Government’s climate change mitigation policies seems to pinpoint another area of insufficient policy development and exploratory thinking. The decision reflects the judges’ concern that there is a lack of evidence about the actual prospective achievement of commitments being made in policies, with the very strong likelihood that the reality will not match the desire.

Put simply, the detailed examination of cause and effect is missing. This is in fact the second time the same point has been made by the court, with the original decarbonisation plan from 2021 rejected, and then revised with a new document issued in 2023 that the court now effectively believes is no better. Surely, it is not a lack of available expertise that has left this hole in public policy- but a head in the sand mentality.

Sometimes a challenge or a need to break out of an entrenched position needs more than expert advice, but a fundamental shock to the system, brought by the input of people empowered to come to the subject with an open mind, and a willingness, if necessary, to present a threat to the existing way of doing things.

This has come in the past with the advice sought from commissioning of the Buchanan Report on Traffic in Towns, and the tasks given to bodies like The Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment (SACTRA).

Only in circumstances where a political position has been taken that things need to be fundamentally thought about in new ways, is it likely that such advice will have the fire-power to bring about genuine change. This, sadly, is probably not what the DfT has been thinking when it invites the contribution of its new expert groups.

After all, a flow of new information and insight can only be useful if the mindset and receptiveness of those responsible for its assimilation and deployment are disposed to embracing it for the message it brings - not just feeding it into an existing machinery of analysis and decision making.

Challenges to the status quo can admittedly be troublesome. As Professor Goodwin points out, if there is an acknowledgement that the existing processes regarding a topic like freight patterns are fundamentally in need of revision, all existing transport schemes in the pipeline may well be based on flawed methodology -and open to challenge. A similar observation from professor Greg Marsden logically follows from the new High Court judgment about the adequacy of the government policies to actually deliver its commitments to addressing Climate Change. If these policies are not robust, how can we be sure that the logic of schemes based upon them is either?

Let’s hope that the DfT is genuinely willing to invite challenge by, as well as insight and analysis from, the wider transport thinking community.

Peter Stonham is the Editorial Director of TAPAS Network

This article was first published in LTT magazine, LTT891, 8 May 2024.

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