Five minutes with… Alison Lacey

Ella Rhodes spoke to Alison Lacey, a doctoral researcher at Sussex University, whose PhD has been exploring the impact of school closures on families during the pandemic, about her POST Fellowship.

Each year the BPS holds a fellowship for postgraduate psychology students to join the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology for three months. Many fellows work on a briefing paper or POST note collating evidence. For Alison Lacey's fellowship she took part in a project with the Health and Social Care Select Committee.

What made you want to apply to the POST fellowship?

I have always been interested in politics and the chance to work with parliamentarians was too good to miss. I hadn’t heard of POST before my supervisor suggested applying for the BPS/POST fellowship, so I started my research by looking at blogs written by previous POSTies. They all seemed hugely positive about the experience, which spurred me on.

POST Fellows usually start in cohorts in January, April, and September and while most Fellows are allocated to work on a POSTnote there are also opportunities to work in Select Committees or one of either the Commons or Lords libraries. I was asked if I wanted to do a POSTnote or work on a completely new project with the Health and Social Care Select Committee. I went for the Select Committee because I thought it might offer the chance to get more involved in the inner workings of Westminster.

The Health and Social Care Select Committee recently established an Expert Panel to pilot a completely new method of government scrutiny. Select Committee inquiries typically involve scoping reviews alongside the evaluation of evidence gathered during oral evidence sessions or in written submissions to come up with policy recommendations. The Panel were asked to do more of a ‘deep dive’ to assess the quality of commitments the Government has made in specific policy areas, and to rate progress against these commitments using Care Quality Commission-style ratings. 

The pilot evaluation was on maternity services and was the first time a government department has been graded in this way, and, surprisingly, the first time there has been a systematic process to assess government progress against its own targets. The Expert Panel is chaired by Professor Dame Jane Dacre, former President of the Royal College of Physicians, and includes experts from academia, law, and maternity professionals.  

As this was the first evaluation of its kind, there were a lot of unknowns and the chance for me and Florence Young (my fellow Fellow working on the project) to make our mark. During the first week, the Panel received a formal response from the Department of Health to its questions on each of the four commitments under review: maternity safety, Continuity of Carer, Personalised Care and Support Plans; and safe staffing. My first job was to analyse this response, cross check calculations, and highlight any missing data or gaps. Over the next nine weeks, Florence and I supplemented this initial analysis with information received in written submissions from key stakeholders, facilitated roundtable events with midwives and obstetricians, and attended a focus group with women from East African backgrounds. We also held follow-up meetings with the Department and NHS England Improvement to chase up any data queries, or to request new information. 

Throughout the process we were responsible for keeping the panel up to date with new information, and making sure the Chair was properly briefed for meetings. The final few weeks were spent drafting the panel’s final report, including the CQC ratings for each commitment.

What surprised during your time on the project?

I was surprised, and pleased, by the autonomy we were given at every stage of the process, from developing a new method of qualitative analysis of written submissions in a health policy context, drafting questions for the department, or deciding the focus of questions for the roundtables. We also had access to some incredible people; the panel themselves were very generous with their time and expertise, as well as the wider committee staff. We also had the opportunity to work with colleagues at the National Audit Office and other key institutions.  

I was also surprised by the intensity of the experience: there were a couple of opportunities for a breather but they were few and far between. Writing the draft with Florence was an iterative process with several stages of review, and at 60,000 words it is quite the door-stopper. The irony that my original application to POST was assessed on my ability to write a succinct 4-page policy briefing was not lost on me!  

What will you take away from the experience as a whole?

It was an incredible privilege to have been a part of the Expert Panel’s first evaluation, and to have worked with such a high-profile Committee. I have learned a huge amount about the realities of policy work, about the constant efforts of staff behind the scenes, and the excitement of working in such a fast-paced environment.

It has also been an amazing networking opportunity – I’ve never been part of a WhatsApp group with two dames and a sir before – and we have already made plans for some collaborative work in the future. The placement has opened up career possibilities following my PhD that I can’t wait to explore. 

- Find out more about the scheme.

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