What works now: how can we use evidence more effectively in policymaking?

Evidence use in policymaking is nothing new. It has been talked about by policymakers, academics and professionals for the best part of ten years, and has been highlighted a lot, among other places, on this blog. Over the years various government initiatives have been set up to try to establish how best to use evidence and identify “what works” in relation to specific policy interventions, and “evidence-based” policymaking has become the catchphrase of policymakers across most sectors.

One of the newest books to be added to the Idox Information Service library reflects on the rise of “what works” as an approach to policy development. The book builds on discussions from the first edition of the book, and provides a sector-by-sector breakdown of how evidence is – and could be – used in policymaking across areas like health, the environment, education and criminal justice. It also offers some insight into appraising evidence and how to assess quality, as well as how evidence is used internationally, providing examples from the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Scandinavia.

As one of our key aims is to support and facilitate the sharing and use of evidence in the public sector, this book has been a welcome addition to our collection.

Making use of research across policy

In 2013, the UK government launched the What Works Network, which is now made up of 10 independent centres committed to “supporting the creation, supply and use of evidence” in specific policy areas including crime and policing, education and economic growth. The centres aim to improve the way government and other organisations create, share and use (or ‘generate, translate and adopt’) high-quality evidence for decision-making. According to the UK government, the initiative is the first time a government has taken a national approach to prioritising the use of evidence in decision making.

What Works Now? highlights research from Weiss (1979) which suggests that there are “7 types of research use”:

  • Knowledge Driven – research will be developed, applied and used once it has been produced
  • Problem Solving – research will be applied directly to a particular policy problem in order to solve it
  • Interactive – research forms part of a wider web of knowledge, policy and other research which all interact with each other
  • Political – research could (and probably will) be used to retrospectively provide support for a policy decision which has already been made
  • Tactical – research can be used as a tool to delay or deflect from decision making or action around a particular issue (i.e. “more research is needed in this area”)
  • Enlightenment – research informs policy through encouraging people to think and discuss particular ideas or concepts in a different way
  • Embedded research – research production is embedded in a wider contextual system which includes political priorities, the law and the media

Building a research base to support “what works”

Creating and disseminating research effectively have been cited as being key to creating a “what works” evidence base. A number of research institutes and think tanks contribute alongside real-life experiences of practitioners and other stakeholders to try and establish the conditions which support effective interventions and lead to positive policy outcomes.

One of the big discussions currently is around the creation of academic research to support what works programmes. Exploring what sort of research is useful to practitioners and policymakers and aligning this with the research agenda of academics and universities can help to create an effective supply chain of evidence to inform policymaking. However, often academics often do not engage with the policy process, or politicians politicise evidence, picking and choosing which findings to take notice of, which can distort the perception of what evidence is available in a particular area.

Encouraging fuller participation and a more robust appraisal of research from across the board is something which many institutions are trying to work towards. Research impact and knowledge exchange is now integrated into research funding and a growing number of people are working to feed research more effectively into the policy arena.

Evaluating research and evidence and judging which to take forward to inform policy decision making is also important. Along with discussions around assessing and labelling evidence the book considers how some of the main organisations in the UK concerned with promoting evidence-informed policy have gone about appraising evidence, weighing it up, assessing quality and “fitness for purpose” and taking account of non-research based forms of knowledge and evidence, such as the personal experience of practitioners.

Applying “what works” in practice

Applying “what works” in practice can be a challenge, especially in a setting that is perhaps very different from the conditions of a study that has been shown to produce successful outcomes from a particular intervention.

In the book, 10 guiding principles to support the use of evidence in practice are set out:

  • Translated – To be used research must be adapted and reconstructed to fit with local contexts. Simply providing findings is not enough
  • Ownership – Ownership of the research and allowing people to feel a sense of ownership over the development of research
  • Enthusiasts – Individual “champions” can be useful in ensuring that research actually gets used
  • Local context – Local context must be taken into account, particularly in relation to specific barriers and enablers which might help or hinder change
  • Credibility – Credibility of researchers and the people who support the research is key to ensuring that the research is taken seriously
  • Leadership – Strong leadership provides motivation, authority and integrity in the implementation of evidence
  • Support to implement change – Ongoing support to implement change is important, this could include financial, technical, organisational or emotional support
  • Develop Integration – Activities need to be able to be integrated with existing organisational systems and practices, changes do not happen within a bubble
  • Engage key stakeholders – To ensure effective uptake and buy-in key stakeholders should be involved as fully as possible form the earliest possible stage
  • Capture learning/ Effective evaluation – Don’t forget the importance of evaluation, identify what worked and what didn’t to help share learning and support future projects

Final thoughts

In theory, using evidence to inform policy sounds straightforward. The reality can be quite different. What Works Now? highlights that the “what works” agenda remains dominant across the policy landscape, even if the application or approach to it differs from policy area to policy area.

What counts as evidence is still disputed; getting evidence “out there” and encouraging academics to be involved in the policy process is still hard to achieve (although there is good work being done in this area to try and combat this); and context is still key to making evidence work in a particular environment.

Understanding evidence, and how to use it effectively has been a core aim of policymakers in the UK, and across the world for the many years. This book, and the supporting research outlined in it highlights that while evidence is still at the fore of policymaking, actually identifying what works and putting it into practice is a bit more of a challenge.

Members of the Idox Information Service can log into our website to request a loan of “What works Now?”

If you enjoyed this post, you may also be interested in:

A world of evidence … but can we trust that it is any good?

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