How big is the “policy community” in the UK?

I am asking this question to myself and others for a variety of reasons – mainly in trying to at least get a rough idea of ‘who shapes policy’ in the UK. Watch this space for future posts on this topic.

So let’s start with elected politicians – I am including here MPs, devolved assembly members, and local councillors (not parish or community councillors. (Source: Professor Colin Copus – thanks Colin)

That comes to around 22,000.

Membership of the political parties presently stands at somewhere around 500,000 (minus the elected ones), but by no means all of these will be ‘policy active’. So if we assume about 1 in 100 is, that comes to about 50,000 party activists. (source: Parliament).

Next is the so-called “policy-procession” in the civil service. This claims to be about 17,000 strong, although this figure should be hedged around with all sorts of caveats (which I’ll discuss in a future post).(Source: see my evidence to HoC PASC here).

What about the public service as a whole? There are about 5.4m public sector workers in the UK according to the ONS, so if we assume that about 1 in 50 of them are going to be managers or professionals interested in public policy issues (and often with some influence on how they are implemented – the so-called “high street bureaucrats) then there are about 108,000 of them.

Finally us academics. We did a ‘guestimate’ based on figures from University of Manchester where we have about 500 academics actively engaged in one way or another with public policy issues – if that were replicated nationally then there would be about 25,000 policy-engaged academics in the UK.

One other possible indicator is readership of the serious policy magazines. The New Statesman (30,000), Spectator (54,000) and Economist (UK readers only: 210,000) add up to around 294,000.

All that lots adds up to 516,000.

Now, yes, of course, there will be some overlap – especially with the last media figure and the rest. But on the other hand we have not included think tanks, voluntary and lobbying groups, trade unions, senior managers in industry and a host of others who might be engaged with public policy issues.

So would it be a reasonable ‘guestimate’ to say that around half a million people constitute what can loosely be called the ‘policy shaping community’ in the UK today?

I’m genuinely interested to know what others think – please make a comment.

4 thoughts on “How big is the “policy community” in the UK?

  1. 1:50 looks about right for local govt; the shape is pretty triangular (in a large met (with about 8,000 staff) we estimated the key management cadre came to about 150 – 200 suggesting that its betwen 1:40 to 1:50) – there would be more involved in ‘thinking’ about policy I guess but about right for the ones thinking and doing.

  2. Interesting question. I’d disagree that the term for the half-million should be “policy shaping community”, I think the numbers who do that are much smaller. “Policy-interested” perhaps. I’d imagine that only 50,000-100,000 at the top end were really in a position to make a noticeable difference on policy.

    I once estimated (for a piece of writing that has been forthcoming for six years or so) that the senior policy community in local and central government, plus journalists and think tank people with real influence, was about 10,000 – and calculated that if you lined up the population of the UK along the London – Penzance railway line, they’d all fit on the platforms at Paddington. Or (same ratio expressed differently) that in a full Wembley Stadium they’d fit in an executive box.

  3. An interesting and worthwhile question.

    We started to look at this for our Impact book, but more in terms of the size of the UK social science research ‘mediating’ community, i.e. can we put a figure on the number of professionals in the UK that in some way or another produce or mediate social science research? We ended up with a very guesstimated and almost definitely underestimated figure of 410k.

    Of course our figure is social science research only, and not necessarily or exclusively policy-related. So although our figure of 410k is not far from your 516k, the two numbers are only partly compatible in terms of how they are scoped.

    It strikes me that there are some potential additions for your 516k.

    Potential under-counting
    – Private sector consultants and service providers – I think you have to include private sector firms that are directly involved in providing public services in the UK. If you are going to count public sector workers, then you should also count staff that work for privately-managed firms providing public services, the likes of G4S, Capital, Serco. I.e. some estimate of the ‘shadow state’. All of these firms are intensely involved and interested in shaping policy and practice, and they are definitely part of the UK policy community. It’s hard to say how many people exactly, but a conservative would be at 20 per cent of your 108k figure for the public sector – another 20k?
    – You mention the third sector but don’t include conservative estimate for charity staff that work in policy development and research. In the Civil Society chapter of our book, we mention research by Hilton et al (2013) that estimates around 700k third sector workers in the UK. Let’s guesstimate that 10 per cent of these are involved in some kind of lobbying or policy shaping role – another 70k?
    – We can probably separate think tanks and research institutes out from the rest of the third sector, and include all staff in this area – another 5k?
    – I would also include another 5 or 10k for self-employed consultants and policy experts who operate in the interstices with mainstream actors in policy development – you only have to look at the number of these consultant-types on Twitter in health and criminal justice – another 5 or 10k?
    So I reckon on this conservative basis, you could add at least another 100k to your estimate.

    Are you taking this work further – or was it just an interesting thought exercise?

  4. Your estimate of the number of people who are involved, in some manner, in the policy-shaping process is credible. However, the number of people with the authority to act as “gate-keepers” is orders of magnitude smaller. By this I mean those with the ability to limit the range or scope of options available to the ultimate decision makers. The latter – people with the ability to choose between, or veto, proposals – are very small in number indeed. A few thousand at most?

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