Guerilla Voice: Why some issues are off the Government's evidence agenda

Michael Harris /   June 29, 2015 at 8:33 PM 1,654 views

The Government’s ‘evidence agenda’ appears beguilingly apolitical, with its implicit promise to take the politics out of policymaking. In fact, it’s highly political – not in what it focuses on, but in what it chooses to ignore. This week, the Government announced its plans for a new network of ‘what works’ evidence centres. This network will consist of two existing ‘centres of excellence’ (the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence and the Educational Endowment Foundation), plus four ‘new’ independent institutions responsible for gathering, assessing and sharing the “most robust evidence to inform policy and service delivery.” The four new centres will focus on tackling crime, ‘active and independent ageing’, early intervention (i.e. in children’s early years), and local economic growth. (These plans have been in development for a while; the original commitment to consider a ‘NICE for social policy’ was included in the Open Public Services White Paper published in July 2011, reaffirmed in the Government’s Civil Service Reform Plan announced in June 2012.) The Government claims that these evidence centres will “drive better decisions across £200 billion of public services.” ConservativeHome has called it a ‘quiet revolution’ in evidence-based policymaking. The problem is, it’s nothing of the sort, and certainly not a ‘revolution.’ Some commentators are skeptical of the idea of trying to introduce more evidence into policymaking, particularly when it comes to social policy. Dan Corry from New Philanthropy Capital has expressed a widely-shared concern in arguing that reducing social policy to a set of known interventions ignores the complexity and context of many of the issues involved. The Guardian’s David Walker has similarly suggested that: “Much social policy is about reshaping institutions and changing governance, and these phenomena are much harder to capture let along measure than testing a cancer drug or even a discrete intervention such as a smoking cessation programme. Even something apparently simple, such as evaluating the performance of a privately owned and run prison against a Ministry of Justice establishment is fraught with difficulties.” Despite these concerns, as others have suggested, it should be entirely possible to design policies in ways that are also experiments, in a way that produces valuable comparisons about what works. The problem is, this isn’t what the Government is proposing. Firstly, however much we might welcome official support for more evidence in policy, this doesn’t amount to a ‘revolution’ either in scale or ambition. The rather thin supporting paper on the evidence centres reveals a somewhat cobbled together network of existing organisations and, given the scale of the announced ambition, drastically under-funded new bodies (for example, the centre for local economic growth will have core funding of only £1 million a year for three years). But secondly and most importantly, this isn’t really about policy at all. There’s a repeated confusion in the official announcements and supporting documents about the evidence centres between ‘policies’ (normally taken to mean the laws and regulations that government and Parliament determine), and ‘interventions’ (meaning approaches in public services, i.e. the services that actually get offered to people or what is done to try to solve problems on the ground). In some cases, it is even confusingly suggested that the evidence centres will focus on ‘policy interventions’ (whatever they are). This isn’t semantics, rather it hides the major issue with the Government’s agenda (or rather, what the Government is hiding from the evidence agenda). In a world of increasingly disaggregated (and outsourced) public services, government more and more takes the view that public services are a ‘black box.’ It’s not central government’s job to define exactly what local public services do on the ground; instead government sets out the broad ‘guarantee’ of what public services should provide and more importantly what they should seek to achieve. This is largely a good thing, in that it makes for local flexibility and diversity. Enter the evidence agenda, which focuses on the various approaches used by the range of providers of public services and which approaches are better than others. But many providers are highly ambivalent about evidence. It’s not that they don’t care whether their services are effective, rather that they tend to lack the expertise or resources to evaluate their approaches scientifically in the way the evidence agenda proposes. This especially applies to smaller providers such as local charities. Nowhere is this major issue mentioned in the documents about the evidence centres. It’s as if all the necessary evidence will magically appear from, well, somewhere… As a result, instead of supporting ‘what works’, this meagerly-funded agenda is more likely to favour those very large providers who can afford to assemble ‘evidence’ in support of their approaches, with the risk that this produces less Big Society and more Big Business in our public services. What this also sidesteps are the Big Issues. It’s pretty clear from the examples included in the announcements that the focus of the evidence centres will be on interventions, not big ‘P’ policy. The Government’s evidence agenda won’t be testing if its NHS reforms (cost: £1.5-1.6 billion) are supported by a solid evidence base, how its welfare reforms will impact on the poorest and most vulnerable in society (such as Universal Credit, cost: £2.6 billion), whether its extension of academies (cost: £8.3 billion) will educate young people more effectively, or whether its Work Programme (cost: £3-5 billion) actually works. That’s the evidence most people would prefer to see. But as the Institute for Government noted this week, the fundamental problem is lack of ‘demand’ among policymakers. Translation: ministers don’t really want contrary evidence about their ‘flagship’ policies (a point supported by a survey of civil servants conducted last year). To borrow from the title of a new online project, such big questions about policy quickly become the ‘undiscussables‘, in which case, as the IfG puts it, the proposed evidence centres “…risk being nice irrelevancies.” That would be a shame. We do need more evidence in policymaking, including the evidence to justify government policies before they are introduced at great cost. The problem is, what the Government has announced this week isn’t the revolution we really need. Next week, we’ll consider an alternative evidence agenda – the one the Government should have announced.

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