We are in danger of repeating the same mistakes if we bemoan low attention to ‘facts’

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Guest blog post, by Paul Cairney

A key theme of some of the early analysis of Brexit is that many voters followed their feelings rather than paying attention to facts*.

For some people, this is just a part of life: to describe decision-making as ‘rational’ is to deny the inevitable use of heuristics, gut feelings, emotions, and deeply held beliefs.

For others, it is indicative of a worrying ‘post-truth politics’, or a new world in which campaigners play fast and loose with evidence and say anything to win, while experts are mistrusted and ignored or excluded from debates, and voters don’t get the facts they need to make informed decisions.

One solution, proposed largely by academics (many of whom are highly critical of the campaigns) is largely institutional: let’s investigate the abuse of facts during the referendum to help us produce new rules of engagement.

Another is more pragmatic: let’s work out how to maximise the effectiveness of experts and evidence in political debate. So far, we know more about what doesn’t work. For example:

  • Don’t simply supplypeople with more information when you think they are not paying enough attention to it. Instead, try to work out how they think, to examine how they are likely todemand and interpret information.
  • Don’t just bemoan the tendency of people to accept simple stories that reinforce their biases. Instead, try to work out how to produce evidence-based stories that can compete for attention with those of campaigners.
  • Don’t stop at providing simpler and more accessible information. People might be more likely to read a blog post than a book or lengthy report, but most people are likely to remain blissfully unaware of most academic blogs.

I’m honestly not sure how to tell good stories to capture the public imagination (beyond that time I put the word ‘shite’ in a title) but, for example, we have a lot to learn from traditional media (and from some of the most effective academics who write for them) and from scholars who study story-telling and discourse (although, ironically, discourse analysis is often one of the most jargon-filled areas in the Academy).

We have been here before (in policy studies)

This issue of agenda setting is a key feature in current discussions of (the alleged lack of) evidence-based policymaking. Many academics, in areas such as health and environmental policy, bemoan the inevitability of ‘policy based evidence’. Some express the naïve view that policymakers should think like scientists and/ or that evidence-based policymaking should be more like the idea of evidence-based medicine in which there is a hierarchy of evidence. Others try to work out how they can improve the supply of evidence or set up new institutions to get policymakers to pay more attention to facts.

Yet, a more pragmatic solution is to work out how and why policymakers demand information, and the policymaking context in which they operate. Only then can we produce evidence-based strategies based on how the world works rather than how we would like it to work.

See also:

The Politics of Evidence Based Policymaking:3 messages

Evidence-based policymaking: lecture and Q&A

‘Evidence-based Policymaking’ and the Study of Public Policy

Paul Cairney (2016) The Politics of Evidence-based Policymaking(London: Palgrave Pivot) PDF

Paul Cairney, Kathryn Oliver, and Adam Wellstead (2016) ‘To Bridge the Divide between Evidence and Policy: Reduce Ambiguity as Much as Uncertainty’, Public Administration Review, Early View (forthcoming) DOI:10.1111/puar.12555 PDF

* Then, many people on twitter vented their negative feelings about other people expressing their feelings.

Paul Cairney is Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of Stirling, Scotland, UK. He specialises, and is widely published in, public policy research publications relating to:  Scottish public policy; the use of evidence within policy making; and how researchers and producers of evidence can interact with, and impact, policy makers. Earlier this year he launched his new book, The Politics of Evidence Based Policy Making. He also blogs regularly on issues around: evidence based policy making (EBPM); Scottish public policy; and UK and Scottish policy styles, including prevention and early intervention.
p.a.cairney@stir.ac.uk twitter: @cairneypaul


Subscribers to our Idox Information Service can find out the latest commentary and analysis on EBPM and the EU referendum through our weekly bulletins and alerts. To sign up to our weekly bulletin click here.

Celebrating 1,000 issues of the Idox Information Service Weekly Bulletin

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by Stacey Dingwall

After turning 40 last year, the Idox Information Service today reaches another milestone: the 1,000th edition of our Weekly Bulletin.

The Bulletin is circulated to our members every week, as part of their subscription to our service. It contains a selection of abstracts of some of the 100+ articles and documents added to our database each week. The Bulletin highlights the publications that our team of Research Officers think will be of the most interest or importance to our members, across our core subject areas:

  • Government, politics and public administration.
  • Business and economy.
  • Management and organisational development.
  • Equalities and diversity.
  • Employment, jobs and careers.
  • Education and skills.
  • Planning and development.
  • Transport, infrastructure and communications.
  • Regeneration and community development.
  • Arts, culture and leisure.
  • Health and social care
  • Crime, justice and rights.

Also included is a section of new government publications, which features any consultations, guidance and announcements the UK government and the devolved administrations have published that week.

The Bulletin was first published in 1975, back when the Information Service was known as the Planning Exchange. In his book on the early days of the Planning Exchange, Barry Cullingworth notes that at the time, “neither central nor local government [was] adequately organised to provide information”. According to founder Tony Burton, the Planning Exchange had therefore found itself dealing with an unexpected volume of requests for information, “not only from the general public, voluntary organisations and elected members, but also from academics, professionals and officers of local and central government”.

This resulted in the Planning Exchange gaining funding from the Leverhulme Trust to provide a weekly roundup of abstracts of articles and research on planning and housing-related matters to elected members in a couple of local authorities in Scotland. While this was intended to be a limited service, at the end of its trial period several local planning officers asked the Planning Exchange to continue sending the Bulletin, as they found it so useful.

Today, the Bulletin is sent to our members in local authorities across the country, central government, planning consultancies, universities and commercial organisations, among others. It forms part of the key current awareness service provided by the Idox Information Service for our members, alongside separate subject specific updates, personalised alerts and our recently launched election updates.

You can read more about the many benefits our customers enjoy from their membership of the Idox Information Service in our previous blog post here. We have also been recognised by the Alliance for Useful Evidence for our work in making research relevant and accessible to practitioners – not just researchers.


Organisations that join the Idox Information Service are committed to using a sound evidence base for decision-making and policy formulation. They also support the professional development of their staff. Being part of our community gives them the knowledge and tools to improve both frontline services and forward planning and strategy.

Membership packages can cover an entire organisation or a specific department or team. We also offer subscriptions to our current awareness services to individuals who are not affiliated with a suitable organisation.

To find out more please contact our team on 0870 333 7101 or contact us online.

Evidence use in health and social care – introducing Social Policy and Practice

SPP screenshotWith public sector austerity and the integration of health and social care, it seems as though the need for access to evidence-based policy and practice has never been stronger. Initiatives such as those from the Alliance for Useful Evidence, most recently its practice guide to using research evidence, have highlighted the importance of using trusted sources rather than “haphazard online searches”. One of these resources is Social Policy and Practice, a database which we have contributed to for twelve years.

“SPP is useful for any professional working in the field of social care or social work who can’t get easy access to a university library.” Alliance for Useful Evidence, 2016

The journey to a new resource

A recent article in CILIP Update has explored the background to the Social Policy and Practice database, and its contribution to ensuring the inclusion of grey literature and a UK-perspective within systematic reviews. Update is the leading publication for the library, information and knowledge management community and they’ve given us permission to share this article with our blog readers.

We’ve written before about the value of UK-produced databases within a global publishing context. The CILIP Update article makes the point that when conducting any search for evidence, it’s important to look beyond the major databases to more specialist collections, to source grey literature and to look beyond geographical borders.

This was one of the major drivers in 2003, when the heads of the Centre for Policy on Ageing, the Greater London Authority, Idox Information Service, National Children’s Bureau and Social Care Institute for Excellence agreed to pool their resources and create the first national social science database embracing social care, social policy, social services, and public policy.

The proposal was met with great enthusiasm by the sector which recognised a gap in provision. The new Social Policy and Practice database was launched in November 2004.

The strengths of consortium working

Bringing together these organisations was relatively simple. They were all striving to provide evidence and information to their staff, members or customers. They all also had a professional drive to share their focused collections with the wider world of researchers and to influence policy and practice.

Through developing best practice and troubleshooting problems together, we have improved not only the Social Policy and Practice database for users but also improved our own individual collections. All whilst remaining independent and focused on our individual specialities.

Continuing to evolve

The NSPCC joined the database consortium in 2015, bringing its collection of resources focused on child abuse, child neglect and child protection. The NSPCC library is Europe’s largest collection of publications dedicated to safeguarding children. It includes journal articles, books, academic papers, leaflets, reports, audio-visual material, websites and digital media on all subjects that help researchers, policy makes and practitioners protect children from abuse and neglect.

Social Policy and Practice now boasts over 400,000 references to papers, books and reports and about 30% of the total content is grey literature. Social Policy and Practice has been identified by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a key resource for those involved in research into health and social care.

We’re proud to be contributing to the knowledge base for social research, policy and practice!


To find out more about Social Policy and Practice (SPP) database for evidence and research in health and social care, or to get a free trial, please visit www.spandp.net

Read some of our other blogs on evidence use in public policy:

Q&A with Mark Evans: “To make evidence effective you have to win the war of ideas”

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Mark Evans is the Director and Professor of Governance at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra, Australia. In this interview with the Knowledge Exchange, Mark talks about how his research is used in policy development.

How can policy makers/practitioners benefit from developing their knowledge and use of evidence?

The more I’ve got involved in the practice of decision making and developing policies, the more I’ve seen the value of evidence. To make evidence effective you have to win the war of ideas. Politicians have their own sources of evidence – internal policy, preferred sources, media etc. – and ministers are enveloped by a whole range of sources. Good evidence has to find a way of being heard and cutting through this.

Civil servants are very skilled in committees and running processes and programmes effectively. They are good at technical solutions and responses, but not adaptive developmental issues, which require time. Their ability to engage and get to the hardest to reach groups within policy, was one of the key findings of our study. How do you cost programmes which take a long time and investment, and target groups experiencing significant marginalisation?

When people talk to you about evidence, research or knowledge, what do they most frequently raise as issues?

Real time evidence – which we can only do through open data. In Australia this is difficult as we don’t have national datasets to enable large scale analysis or comparison. The UK is far ahead of us in terms of data and its use in evidence. In the UK there is no shortage of data, but it needs to be more dynamic, whereas in Australia it’s not sufficient. Resources such as Euromonitor don’t exist in Australia, so we can’t compare or contrast issues or monitor impact. Spatial modelling is very influential due to this lack of data – simulated models for different areas are necessary as we don’t have the real data.

What are the mistakes people make when it comes to developing knowledge, things which you really need to avoid?

Not understanding the political dynamics leads to failure. Not understanding that knowledge is power, and assuming that what makes good evidence is what makes good understanding, are big traps to fall into. Just because you develop good evidence doesn’t mean it will be accepted.

The most important first step is agreement around values and principles. The classic example in Australia would be the original agreement on the child support scheme:  ‘absent fathers should contribute’ was the fundamental principle and getting that agreement led to the introduction of the scheme.

What are the main issues facing policy makers in the next 5 years? What evidence will they need?

This may be peculiar to Australia, but the personalisation of politics and policies, is now impacting. The ‘Obama technologies’ approach of targeting messages to voters and the targeting of resources to particular groups, is on the rise, so policy is becoming individually relevant. If we know what people want, we can then move resources to target their needs. The evidence to help policy makers to do this successfully (i.e. generally the use of new technologies, big data, social media, getting real time data on preferences) is going to grow in importance and be in demand.

Key policy issues are ageing, the cost of care and pensions, funding the social security gaps and climate change. There is also a rise in the development of preventative health and generally the funding of higher education.

How do you think people will be carrying out evidence, research and knowledge development in five years’ time?

Technology, everyone always says technology! Normally there is a lag between the technology and its realisation in public policy – this was certainly the case up until recently.

Largely because there is an association between technology and productivity, there is an inverse relationship between use the use of consultants and productivity. There is only a productivity gain in the public sector in the digitisation of services and the consolidation of the use of technologies.

There is a presumption of localism in policy, but actually technology development is leading to more centralisation. This can be a positive thing for the availability and reliability of data, but negative for understanding very local issues.

If you had a ‘best-kept secret’ about research, evidence and knowledge, what would you recommend, and why?

An approach which is useful in thinking about the context of evidence and policymaking is to ask “I am in my ‘cockpit’ (desk, computer, books, advisors, people I know), but what is in your cockpit?” We’ve found that the more experienced policy officers all had mentors, all had experts, they knew about data, and could do policy relatively quickly. This contrasted with younger policy makers (the ‘Wikipedia policy makers’). Fast-track policy making is being done (ministers deciding and the policy maker sent off to write the evidence base) but if their ‘cockpit’ isn’t complete then the policy making can have holes.

Finally, what led you to a role developing knowledge institutions and focusing on research and evidence development? 

In 1999,  I established the international development unit at York, looking at post-war recovery study. It was just before Afghanistan and Iraq so we became the ‘go to’ place for it, and started to look at the interface between evidence and politics. Many were disregarding the evidence – it’s really all about jobs and poverty; people move towards radicalisation when they have no hope no future.

I came to Australia for the better relationship between government and academia, through the National School of Government.  I have been able to do things in Australia that I wouldn’t have been able to do in UK, bringing together theory and practice. The UK is good at collaboration, and I have taken that to Australia aiming to be the ‘collaborator of first resort’.


You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkEvansACT and you can follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Read some of our other blogs on the use of evidence in public policy:

Budget cuts hit research in councils’ adult social care departments

 

By Morwen Johnson

The news that budget pressures have affected councils’ ability to carry out research in adult social care won’t come as any surprise to those working in the sector. Councils have cut £4.6bn from adult social care budgets since 2009-10, equivalent to almost a third of net real terms spend, according to Adass. And with research seen as non-essential, it will always lose out in favour of frontline services and care packages.

A recent survey carried out by the Social Services Research Group (SSRG) and commissioned by the Personal Social Services Research Unit (PSSRU), highlighted the scale of the problem though, finding that there were fewer staff to do research, and those who were left had fewer resources and less support.

Dr Chris Rainey, one of the report authors commented: “In-house research is critical to finding out what, how and why services are delivered and what difference they make. The survey points to the need to reinvest in local research capacity to ensure sound evidence is used”.

Barriers to the use of research

As well as low capacity to undertake their own research on local needs, the survey also identified restrictions on training and professional development.

Like other professions, those working in public health and social services face barriers to keeping up with the latest evidence and commentary. This includes lack of time but also the accessibility of much research (both in terms of knowing it is out there and being able to understand how research relates to practice).

The report highlighted the risk that “reliance on internet-based training and information … may result in a lack of exposure to critical debate and an over-reliance on ‘received wisdom’”.

What our members say

The findings reflect our own experience in meeting the information needs of council staff. We’ve a number of adult social care departments who use our Information Service and once staff realise the time savings we offer, they become champions of the service to colleagues. As our team is made up of information professionals and researchers, we offer experience that can be lacking internally. Resources include peer-reviewed journals, grey literature, books and practice-based case studies and evaluations – which won’t be found by searching Google.

Staff also use us for CPD purposes – nowadays spending on event and conference attendance is unlikely to be approved, but our briefings and current awareness services can help keep them up-to-date with essential topics. We also have a lot of resources on general management issues, such as managing teams, benchmarking, performance, equalities and communication.

“From time to time, we review this service and our last review showed that those who use it regularly either in a corporate capacity or in our major strategic services value it highly, describing it as quick, easy, and comprehensive. It gives staff access to a wide range of information and keeps them up-to-date across many areas that are of direct relevance.”

“I recently completed a Post Graduate course and used it as my first reference point at the beginning of each module. The service saved me a lot of time in searching for articles and books and the staff were extremely helpful. The library is well stocked and I didn’t need to purchase any books for the course.”

“Having access to the on-demand research service is a real plus, and most of our staff see real advantage to that. It saves them time in the long run and frees them up to do the day job.

The threat of short-termism

With resources in social care departments likely to remain very tight, but with practitioners under more pressure to deliver than ever, the question is how can local authorities retain and enhance the evidence base it needs to make decisions effectively?

And how can practitioners engage with the research and analysis on key developments in policy that affect social care services, such as demographic change, housing need, and independent living?

It’s worth remembering that local authority social services researchers were introduced as a result of a recommendation of the 1968 Seebohm Report. This report stressed the need for research and evaluation to be ‘a continuous process, accepted as a familiar and permanent feature of any department or agency concerned with social provision.”

But as we approach another Spending Review, it’s likely that adult social care services will face more cuts. This is despite national organisations representing the sector issuing a statement in October arguing that the sustainability of the sector has now reached a ‘crunch’ point.

Focusing on efficiency savings and short-term interventions may seem the only option at the moment, but we risk just patching up problems rather than delivering services which take a holistic and long-term view of outcomes. And that’s why recognising the value of research and evidence should be a key part of decision-making in every part of the public sector.


We are currently offering a free trial of our service for local authorities. Contact us for more information.

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Knowledge Insider: Creating new cultures and successfully using evidence in planning, with Waheed Nazir, Birmingham City Council

Waheed nazir blogLocal authorities face many challenges when it comes to creating successful places. In this Q&A I speak to Waheed Nazir, Director of Planning and Regeneration at Birmingham City Council. I find out how his infectious enthusiasm for shaping and leading a skilled planning team has impacted on research and evidence.

Waheed, can you describe the situation and challenges you faced leading regeneration activity in Birmingham?

There was incredible talent but a lot of silo working. Even though we had a whole planning department, the functions were all separate, including housing and economic development – all well intended and trying to achieve things for Birmingham, but there wasn’t a bigger picture of what we were trying to create.

Taking over a department just as we were entering into recession, with a 40% cost reduction target and a requirement for outsourcing, was a challenge, so rather than tackle them separately I brought all those areas together. I used those drivers to develop a new approach. I wanted to create a working environment based on common sense and the main objectives were:

1. Breaking down barriers
2. Achieve savings, due to reducing the number of managers
3. Develop my staff and utilise their skills at all levels.

I needed strategic planners who understand and appreciate the local level market, and I wanted all professions, like planning control, involved in doing the policy. Applying real life knowledge and experience, and using the strength of the different disciplines to develop real talent.

By doing this, although we had a 40% budget reduction, overall performance has gone the other way, because individual performance has improved so much. Staff who have left since, have gone on to do really well elsewhere as lead planners, and that’s my real achievement, that the plan put in place created successful staff.

Although resources were reducing, our capacity increased, because from a regeneration perspective, in recession you aren’t firefighting with developers. As development activity slows, it’s important to use that time efficiently, to put in place the strategic documents and the structure you need for when activity returns. It’s a time to reskill staff and to invest in them, so all documents were written in-house. I developed a new ethos and culture, and gave them the documents to own and develop – this is the biggest learning experience.

In 2011/12 I concentrated on organisational structure, roles and new direction – which focused on delivery. I wanted us to create a model of how we will deliver the big city plan which everyone bought into and understood. We worked extensively with government departments to take forward funding tools like EZ [enterprise zones], which now in place gives us funding to support infrastructure up to £1billion and we have already committed £275m.

Population growth was the other big challenge facing the region; forecasts have changed and keep being revised up, the latest increasing by 150,000. As a result we need to do as much housing development as we can. I was not the biggest fan of the RSS (Regional Spatial Strategy) but it did provide a means of allocating land for housing, which was lost on a more strategic basis.

What were the key tasks essential to creating your success?

  • Vision is absolutely critical to what we are trying to achieve. Being able to articulate what you are trying to achieve is vital to getting everyone on board.
  • Leadership – you have to be willing to make very difficult decisions, which can be unpopular. Strong leadership is key to delivery. People leave because of bad processes and lack of leadership, so I encourage leadership across the team – if the policy or process is wrong then change it and replace it, and people administering it are often the ones best placed to see this.
  • The right structure to deliver the vision. Making sure you have the right range of skills and different types of planner, with different perspectives and approaches, and with the right approach to challenging. Pick people who are better than you to complement your strengths. I developed our own graduate programme to grow our own high quality staff with these qualities.
  • Focus on who the customer is, and what the process they have to deal with is actually doing. For instance, ‘if I am selling my house and can’t find my application’ – we scraped the charging fee as it’s easy to do, not labour intensive and really helps the customer out for very little effort. The places we change and the people we service are the important thing.
  • Never thinking things are impossible. Forget the process, forget the funding, what are we trying to achieve and how do we do it? Keep the customer at the heart at it all.

What did you put in place and what actions did you take?

I changed the department structure and developed the attitude of always thinking “it’s never finished”. I developed the approach of looking to other places – the best research is in other places, UK and globally, always looking for both the good and bad. I established working with the private sector, embracing the ideas of private equity. The first 2 years was about getting the house in order, and the 3rd and 4th year are about working with the private sector. It’s about building mutual respect, and giving them confidence to invest in Birmingham. Developing a two way process so they get a perspective on our roles and we get a better perspective on theirs.

I also run the Birmingham Housing Municipal Trust, so we build housing and know what it takes to build it. This helps you appreciate the challenges the private sector is facing. It’s not rocket science, but it is about knowing the market, and being able to be confident about getting a fair deal for the city and also knowing if developers can’t deliver, I can help them.

As a housing development company, we were struggling with finding the right sites. It’s a big job to work out where the sites are, but for the market outside it’s even more difficult, without the local knowledge. So we developed a prospectus for sites, including constraints, sites, services etc and on the back of this, helped bring about 2000 homes forward. It was easy to bring together, helps developers with research and introduction fees, and they can easily spot the sites and who to contact.

Other benefits have been created which we didn’t expect by working closely with developers. If they can see the purpose, such as industrial land being brought forward, they are willing to pay more attention to section 106 and provide employment or apprenticeships because of good working relationships.

How can policy makers/practitioners benefit from developing their knowledge and use of evidence?

The type of evidence we use can be very different depending on the activity – the local plan is very different to the big city plan. For a local plan you need scale of projections and development opportunities, technical evidence on transport etc.

Although I always like work to be carried out internally to grow and retain knowledge, sometimes it is necessary to commission research externally, to be independent, check our understanding, and refresh it. Market evidence and financial modelling of impact, alongside economic modelling of the benefits are vital, but as planners we don’t articulate this very well – it starts and stops with place, but actually its long term, structural and widespread change that we need.

I don’t bring consultants in to just take intelligence from staff – we use them for new things and to fill gaps in my own staff’s knowledge and ensure knowledge is transferred. I like to liberate staff, show them they can do it, that they have the talent and energy to make change happen – that’s important and personal knowledge enables that to happen.

Planners need to make sure there is a strong evidence base to look at the overall locality, creating localised solutions, using projections and indicators, i.e. rents data or government locations. Evidence needs to balance with vision. It’s about being brave and ambitious about the art of the possible.

How do you think people will be doing evidence, research and knowledge development in 5 years’ time?

The biggest change will be building modelling into the evidence base, such as economic modelling to test impact, capacity, and income. Modelling the impact of new policies and what they actually do, such as the new homes bonus. We will continue to do traditional evidence work, but increasing the cross-policy integration and impact analysis of issues, such as climate change or flooding, using better data, which all has to be part of the impact measurement.

What are the mistakes people make when it comes to developing evidence, things you which you really need to avoid?

Understanding the quality of what’s out there – knowing how to ask the right question is how you get the right answer. It’s the first, and most important, stage. This means getting the brief right, otherwise you’re in the situation of ‘that’s what you have commissioned’ so can’t change it easily.

When you are commissioning, build in flexibility, the ability to change the work to reflect the changing outputs of the research and the development of the findings and the new questions it raises. You need scope to look at projections which aren’t slavish to past trends, which can reflect the vision you are trying to create, not just tell you about the current state of play. These days all local authorities have lost the evidence base teams they used to have so building that skill set through the whole team is vital.

If you had a list of ‘best-kept secrets’ about research, evidence and knowledge you would recommend, what would you include and why?

Take graduates and train them, round their experience in all the areas, including the private sector – develop the future of the profession by creating good planners.

Surround yourself with people who are better than you, their collective strength reflects well on you and it creates the best results for the place.

Be Bold! Fortune favours the brave and the bold, we have a big responsibility and we have to be brave for the places we look after.


 

This article is one of a series looking at how evidence is used in practice. Read our interviews with our previous ‘Knowledge Insiders’ …

Knowledge Insider: a Q&A with Michael Harris from the RTPI

rtpiIn the latest of our series of Q&As with leading advocates of the use of evidence in policymaking and practice, we talk to Michael Harris, Deputy Head of Research at the Royal Town Planning Institute. The RTPI holds a unique position in relation to planning as a professional membership body, a charity and a learned institute. They have a responsibility to promote the research needs of spatial planning in the UK, Ireland and internationally. They add to the evidence base through in-house research and policy analysis, for example their Policy papers. We interviewed Michael about the research issues facing the planning profession.

Michael, how do you think planners benefit from developing their knowledge and use of evidence?

I think all professions need to be evidence based, it’s the core of being a professional, and it enables you to perform your role, not just on a judgement but an expert professional one. This is the first way planners can benefit; keeping on top of what’s the best available evidence ensures you are effective. All professions have innovators, those who get things done and make changes, and learning from them and using their experience through case studies, best practice and collaboration ensures their good practice gets pushed out to the whole profession and that’s the core benefit of using evidence.

The second benefit is getting the bigger picture, ensuring you understand the major economic, social and environmental challenges. Such as how to create growth, achieve sustainable development, and understand the impact of aging and climate change. All these need new thinking, innovation, and cross discipline knowledge – the best way to do this is through evidence and research.

I work with policy makers to inform policy, and I constantly challenge the perception that planners are an inhibitor of growth. Evidence of the impact and the value which planners add to the growth of places, helps me challenge this perception and benefits the profession as a whole.

What are the main issues facing planners in the next 5 years? What evidence will they need?

The main challenges are:

  • Resources, having less and less and being asked to do more and more. How do we deal with those demands – evidence and sharing of best practice can play a critical role, we can learn from others, and other professions. How do you move from just evaluating what you do based on efficiency and cutting costs to ensuring effectiveness, and improving the impact and outcome of what you are doing? Evidence can help you stop just thinking about efficiency and also take account of effectiveness.
  • Demonstrating the value of planning – we need to make a stronger case for the economic, social and environmental role of planners, and not be characterised as processors. Planners carry out a key role in shaping the world around us, not simply managing a process, and the challenge is to continue to demonstrate this.
  • Ensuring local participation and being more strategic, operating across boundaries, especially for issues such as flooding. It’s difficult for planners to act strategically if the political support isn’t there. There needs to be a will there to enable planners to be truly effective. None the less, a key duty of a professional is to promote understanding; the only way we can do this well, is to work more effectively across boundaries.

My sense is that practitioners value examples of where other authorities have achieved more. Where strategic planning has worked and how you can make it work, or where someone has dealt with limited resources or sustainable development. Case studies are a core strand of accessible evidence, but many are buried in academic research or journals and the RTPI / Idox Information Service are really good at finding them and making them easier to access. This need will only grow greater as more and more information is produced.

In terms of data needs for the future, what we are increasingly seeing potential from is “Big Data”, for example we can make connections between health, social mobility and environment. In the next 5 or 10 years we will be able to draw on these big data sets, which will be a very powerful tool for planners in making decisions about places, and having a strategic, holistic approach to development.

When people talk to you about evidence, research or knowledge, what do they most frequently raise as issues?

The big challenge is time – planners haven’t got time to go looking for evidence – and accessibility of research papers, which are buried in academic journals. The academic language is a barrier, and its timeliness. Often it’s interesting to read but doesn’t relate to the current policy context, so research needs to be more timely and more practical and applied. Alongside time, support from their organisations to look at evidence – the access to evidence resources and time or budget to attend CPD is frequently raised as an issue.

Not enough research is accessible; academic incentives aren’t about applicability; it’s driven by the need to be of a high standard, set by other academics and journals. It is possible to do academic work which is useable and there are lots of good examples, but there are barriers for the academic to deal with. There is good academic research which is relevant but it’s difficult to find. There are also issues about the subjects covered and academic’s interest versus policy maker’s priorities – sometimes there are overlaps but often they are very different.

For example Value of Planning is a key policy issue at the moment – what is the economic impact of planning – but academics don’t see this as an issue as they are already positive about planning. They take for granted that planners have an impact, so don’t see the need to investigate the nature and form of that impact.

What are the hard-to-spot mistakes when it comes to developing your knowledge, things you which you really need to avoid?

Two things I would highlight. Given what the constraints are, it’s easy to rely on an old body of evidence, what you were taught when you were being trained, and not keeping it up to date. That’s why Idox Information Service and RTPI research, especially practice notes which are aimed at helping practitioners refresh knowledge and keep up to date, are essential.

There is also a danger of being too narrow, and not looking at wider areas and topics which affect planning. This creates a narrower perspective on development. Briefing services are really helpful to overcome this, looking at a variety of reports and papers – you can look at the areas you are interested in directly, but you can also scan the broader perspective. Planning should be about not thinking in silos, but how does ‘this’ affect ‘that’ – how can people travel to work, access jobs or get outdoors and you need to think about and be exposed to broader ideas to understand these issues.

Thinking ‘economically’ is something we are trying to promote, not just the traditional way, but our argument is that planning is critical to the economic success of places; it can make them more attractive, livelier, sustainable, and environmentally appealing, so it’s the broader contribution to success that is important. Every planning decision contributes to the success of a place.

How do you think people will be doing evidence, research and knowledge development in 5 years’ time?

I would like to see a profession known for its evidence-based practice, with practitioners able to find, and understand, in an accessible way, the latest evidence.

The future should be where academic research is more and more accessible and applicable to practice having a real impact on delivery. Collaboration between practitioners and researchers makes research more relevant. Projects which have come out of these partnerships have real impact and RTPI will be supporting these projects in the future.

If you had a list of ‘best-kept secrets’ about research, evidence and knowledge you would recommend, what would you include and why?

So much stuff out there, how do you find out what’s going on? Social media and twitter is an incredibly useful research tool – following research organisations, following blogs, can be really useful. Knowledge isn’t static any more, and things you read only 5 years ago can be quite out of date now, and planners need to continually keep up to date. The RTPI and Idox blogs are good in terms of wide-ranging coverage and highlighting latest research but there are plenty out there.

What led you to a role in research and evidence development? 

I did a PhD in politics and public policy, was always more interested in how you can make research more relevant and of interest to policy makers, but I am also aware of the barriers for academics doing this.

I have always sat in organisations that do this bridging. RTPI, as a learned society is doing this for its members. Research is important, but only important if it’s communicated and people can act on it, otherwise it is lost and never read. I see myself as facilitating its use and contribution to change and improvement in practice.

Academic research being read is vital, but academics need to understand the policy constraints, and the importance of making a compelling argument to change practice and policy today.


 

The Idox Information Service has introduced an exclusive offer for RTPI members to help them with their evidence needs.

This year Idox is also sponsoring the RTPI Research Excellence Awards, recognising and promoting high quality spatial planning research.

Find out more about our work supporting planners on our website.

Enhancing the evidence base for planners – Introducing an exclusive offer for RTPI members

WebBy Rebecca Riley

As Dr Mike Harris, Deputy Head of Policy and Research at the Royal Town Planning Institute, wrote on the RTPI’s blog in April, defending and enhancing the profession so that planning can deliver the greatest possible value for society requires evidence and research. Research is inherent to what it means to be a professional – to take informed, evidence-based decisions. More broadly, it can help to lift the perspective of practitioners beyond the day-to-day demands of the job, to provoke reflection and discussion about the wider social purposes and values of planning.

However, we’re also keenly aware of the major barriers to practitioners keeping up with the latest evidence – most obviously lack of time and the accessibility of much research (literally so in the case of academic journals, most of which are kept behind paywalls, but also in terms of the digestibility of some academic research). With resources in local planning authorities in particular likely to remain very tight, but with practitioners under more pressure to deliver than ever, how can the profession retain and enhance the evidence base it needs to do its job effectively? And how can practitioners engage with the research and analysis on key developments in policy that affect planning, such as devolution, economic growth and competitiveness, and housing?

It’s in order to address these questions that the Idox Information Service is partnering with the Institute to provide an exclusive offer for RTPI members. In this blog I want briefly to introduce the service and how it can help planners.

40 years of expertise

The Idox Information Service is a membership library service which was established over forty years ago under its earlier name of the Planning Exchange. At the outset the emphasis was on the provision of resources to support professionals working in planning and the built environment, but we’ve expanded our subject coverage over the years to cover the whole spectrum of public sector information.

Our members include policymakers and practitioners from organisations including local authorities, central government, universities, think tanks, consultancies and charities. We recognise that they work in challenging environments and often need evidence to inform service delivery or decision-making.

Supporting professional practice and policy

Underlying our service is a commitment to evidence-based practice and policy-making. We care passionately about promoting the uptake of evidence and research by policymakers and practitioners. We also follow closely the current evidence-based policy agenda in the UK, encompassing initiatives such as the What Works network, the Local Government Knowledge Navigators and independent organisations such as the Alliance for Useful Evidence. These are working on fostering demand for evidence as well as linking up academics with those in the public sector to ensure that the research community is responsive to the needs of those making decisions and designing and delivering services.

New, exclusive offer for planners

As a result, we’re pleased to announce the launch of our new individual membership offer, which allows professionals to benefit from our expertise. Our skilled team of researchers can keep planners up to date with the latest research, policy developments and information on planning and planning- related topics. This allows members to keep their working knowledge relevant and current, and it also supports CPD.

The RTPI and Idox have come together to offer Institute members an exclusive rate of £179 (plus VAT) – a 30% saving off the cost of the normal rate for individuals. This has been developed in response to demand from planners to access the service on an individual basis.

Feedback from our subscribers consistently tells us that our service is used as part of their training and development; it supports them in writing and responding to policy; in keeping abreast of wider policy areas which affect planning; and helps them continuously improve their own practice through reading case studies, evaluations and the latest research in the field.

About the offer

Individual membership provides RTPI members with access to:

  • Searchable online database of planning research resources with over 200,000 records and with 10,000 new items added every year;
  • Free access to member-only briefings on key planning topics;
  • 50 current awareness bulletins per year;
  • Twice-monthly topic updates – choose from over 32 topics including planning, regeneration, economic development, management, architecture and transport;
  • Free user support to help planners find and access the research they need;
  • Book loans and copyright material are available on request (subject to additional charges).

To find out more about what we cover, read our planning subject guide.

You can find out more about the offer for Institute members on the RTPI website.

We’re happy to be working with the RTPI to enhance professional knowledge and intelligence at a crucial time for planning, and we look forward to welcoming more RTPI members as subscribers to our service.

Evidence for the world we want – International Year of Evaluation

evaluation cycle 2015 has been declared the International Year of Evaluation, by a global movement of international partners seeking to enhance the capacity of Civil Society Organisations to influence policymakers and public opinion, and ensure public policies are based on evidence.

Our latest In Focus briefing considers the role of evaluation; the role of evaluation in programme planning; value for money; social return on investment; international experience; UK approaches; and the ethics of evaluation.

The primary purpose of evaluation is offering a way of determining whether a programme, project or initiative has been a worthwhile investment. It can help to shape and improve current initiatives as a means of reflection, correcting problems and finding what works.

However, there are many challenges to be overcome in carrying out evaluation such as:

  • engagement
  • bias
  • prejudice
  • setting realistic expectations
  • clear purpose and audience
  • lack of information and evidence

To find out more download the briefing here.

Find out more about the 2015 International Year of Evaluation here.

Read our recent blog on why using UK-sourced evidence when making policy or practice decisions is important.


Become a member of the Idox Information Service now, to access a wealth of further information on evaluation including government guidelines, best practice and examples of evaluations. Contact us for more details.

 

Why UK-sourced evidence matters … and why it is so often ignored

By Morwen Johnson

If you follow our blog, you’ll know that we care passionately about promoting the uptake of evidence and research by policymakers and practitioners. It’s easy to be complacent and assume that when public money is at stake, decisions are made on the basis of evaluations and reviews. Unfortunately, this is still not always the case.

The current evidence-based policy agenda in the UK encompasses initiatives such as the What Works network, the Local Government Knowledge Navigators and independent organisations such as the Alliance for Useful Evidence. They are working on fostering demand for evidence, as well as linking up academics with those in the public sector to ensure that the research community is responsive to the needs of those making decisions and designing/delivering services.

A recent article in Health Information and Libraries Journal highlights another challenge in evidence-based policy however. A mapping exercise has found that literature reviews often ignore specialist databases, in favour of the large, well-known databases produced by major commercial publishers. Within the health and social care field (the focus of the article), literature reviews tend to use databases such as Medline, Embase and Cinahl – and overlook independent UK-produced databases, even when they are more relevant to the research question.

Why does it matter?

Research has shown that how (and why) databases are chosen for literature searching can “dramatically influence the research upon which reviews, and, in particular, systematic review, rely upon to create their evidence base”.

To generate useful evidence for the UK context (relating to UK policy issues or populations), researchers need to understand the most appropriate database to search – but unfortunately our own experience of looking at the detail of methodologies in evidence reviews, suggests that in many cases the only databases searched are those produced by American or international publishers.

Grey literature is a valuable source in evidence reviews – and again this is often overlooked in the major databases which tend to focus only on peer-reviewed journal content. A recent Australian report ‘Where is the evidence?‘ argued that grey literature is a key part of the evidence base and is valuable for public policy, because it addresses the perspectives of different stakeholder groups, tracks changes in policy and implementation, and supports knowledge exchange between sectors (academic, government and third sector).

Another benefit of UK-produced databases is that they will make use of UK terminology in abstracts and keywords.

Social Policy and Practice – a unique resource

At this point I should declare a vested interest – The Knowledge Exchange is a member of a UK consortium which produces the Social Policy and Practice (SPP) database. The SPP database was created in 2005 after five UK organisations, each with a library focused on sharing knowledge in community health and social care, agreed to merge their individual content in order to make it available to the widest possible audience.

The current members of the SPP consortium – the National Children’s Bureau, the Idox Knowledge Exchange, the Centre for Policy on Ageing and the Social Care Institute for Excellence – have just been joined by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Inclusion of the NSPCC’s bibliographic data greatly enhances the coverage of child protection research in the database. SPP has been identified by NICE, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, as a key resource for those involved in research into health and social care.

We want the UK research community to understand what SPP offers, and to use it when undertaking literature reviews or evidence searches. This process of awareness raising should start with students – librarians in universities and the UK doctoral training centres have a key role in this as it ties in with the development of information literacy and critical appraisal skills. Ignoring specialist sources such as SPP risks introducing bias – at a time when initiatives are attempting to embed research and analytics in local government and the wider public sector.


Information on the coverage of Social Policy and Practice is available here and the distributor Ovid is offering a free 30-day trial.