The evidence movement is achieving real progress. Six new ‘What Works Centres’, in crime reduction, local economic growth, education, ageing better, early intervention and wellbeing are now established, and linked in the ‘What Works Network’. The aim is to improve the use of high quality evidence when government makes decisions about public services.
These new centres, which publish authoritative assessments of the effectiveness or otherwise of policies and interventions across public services are parts of a rapidly emerging national UK evidence ecosystem. This is the basis for my report to the Cabinet Office, ‘How to achieve more effective services: the evidence ecosystem’, based on my research to identify and link the elements of the evidence supply chain. The report provides practical recommendations on the basis of which the system can be improved.
No amount of evidence synthesis will achieve much if relevant evidence has not been generated. Neither will the best evidence achieve its purpose if the means to promote and adopt it are missing. Evidence pipelines are needed to link the whole system.
Staying with the pipeline analogy, the oil industry offers an additional quality: usability. Practitioners and commissioners need evidence in usable forms; it needs to be boiled down to a few words in formats which are easy for busy policy makers to absorb.
In some sectors there are major capacity shortfalls, especially for evidence generation. In others there are disconnects, for example, between academics with trials skills and front line services. In others still, the workforce needs to be categorised so that target groups for training can be identified. The recommendations in my report include:
Randomised and other controlled trials generate the least equivocal evidence and should be an integral and indispensable part of evidence-based policy making. To increase trials skills capacity, a UK trials advisory panel should be set up. This has now happened and several new trials have started as a result. This is a resource for local as well as central government.
Combined with public service vocation, the curiosity of researchers with trials skills is the beating heart of functional evidence ecosystems. By the same token, there are likely to be few acts more damaging than separating researchers and practitioners. Therefore, local authority policy makers need to work closely with local academics who have trials skills.
Since social media and service magazines are major sources of evidence for policy makers across all public services, these should be developed and capitalised upon as a means to promote evidence.
Local government officials who search for and summarise evidence for service commissioners should be targeted for evidence skills training.
Policy makers engage with and decide to act on evidence in face-to-face meetings. These formal and informal learning groups have sprung up in almost all services and should be nurtured.
It is becoming clear that evidence ecosystems are an essential foundation of good local government. Service improvement is much more difficult and less efficient without them.
Jonathan Shepherd is professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery at Cardiff University where he directs the violence research group. He is the independent member of the Cabinet Office What Works Council