Building a Platform for Evidence Use in Local Government

This blog was originally published on Demsoc’s Open Policy Blog.

I attended the “Informed Future” workstream at the 2012 Solace Summit, and whilst I won’t try to give a blow-by-blow account I want to share here some of the key things which emerged, for me.  There is a lot of hard work at many levels required before Local Government in general can be really effective in this domain, and unless we progress each of the strands simultaneously the process will take much longer than it needs to.

Two statements of principle (to give us purpose)

– A rigorous  evidence-based approach will be essential for tackling some of the huge issues we face – especially long-term multi-agency preventative interventions. We have early examples which are tremendously encouraging – the work of the Dartington Social Research Unit looks especially strong in that regard. A lack of robust needs-based segmentation means that many folk are given services that are not aligned with their needs and so waste resources (arguably “Troubled families” are an extreme example of this).

– Evidence is not in opposition to judgement or democratic choice. Evidence informs both, but can only ever be one input.  It was startling how often in discussion even quite well-informed and senior local government folk appeared to regard evidence as being something which removed the possibility of judgement or democratic input.  It speaks to the lack of a culture of use that familiarity with a notion of democratic objectives and judgement giving rise to research questions which require interpretation and the addition of yet more judgement and democratic input does not seem well established.

Two things that Chief Execs can do in their authorities (to help it happen)

– develop a culture of use of evidence. This may mean a critical self-appraisal of their own comfort to engage with this, and the skills needed around them. Recruitment and personal professional development decisions in the next few years should all bear in mind a need to lead by example with emphasising the value of information. This is about incorporating and developing the evidence base into a coherent narrative of the organisation that it is the job of the CE to co-produce with members. There is almost certainly an opportunity to draw on public health expertise in this area.  A small step councils could take would be to add a box for “evidence base examined” to the many other pro forma boxes such as “legal implications”, “equalities impact” etc on their formal public decision-making committee reports.

– support data improvement.  Even if we resolved all of the cultural issues immediately we would be hampered in our ability to apply rigorous evidence by data quality and data sharing issues.  There are technical people in our organisations who are trying to resolve these issues; they should be sought out and supported – small investment over time will have a big impact when we need it to tackle the really wicked choices for our communities beyond 2015

Two issues for the Sector (that need to be handled at that level)

– We need to begin a discussion about use of evidence and engage/educate in issues around how we will test interventions. We need to get upstream of issues such as the ethics of control groups, randomised control trials so that when we are actually ready to do these things, this doesn’t suddenly become the constraint.

– We need to back LARIAThe Alliance for Useful Evidence, “what-works centres” etc as central repositories of research knowledge and expertise. Their results won’t be perfect first time, but there are some areas where we really cannot afford to have each authority in the country developing its own overview of all relevant research, and there must be benefits of collaboration.

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