The Men’s Sheds revolution spreading around the world

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by Stacey Dingwall

Last week I attended ‘Men’s Sheds: the movement in Scotland and the big picture internationally’, an event, organised by the Centre for Research & Development in Adult and Lifelong Learning (CR&DALL) at the University of Glasgow.

Our blog on the Men’s Sheds movement was one of our most popular last year. The movement originated in Victoria, Australia in the 1990s, as a place for men to socialise and take part in practical activities. 23 years later, there are now close to 1,000 such spaces in Australia. Sheds have also proven popular in Ireland (350 Sheds and counting) and Scotland (at least 38 up and running, with 30 in the start-up phase).

Research has indicated that loneliness and isolation are a particular issue for certain groups of men, which is reflected in higher suicide rates. Evaluations of Men’s Sheds have found participation to have a range of positive effects for these groups of men, predominantly in terms of their mental health and wellbeing.

The movement in Scotland …

The first speaker of the day was Willie Whitelaw, Secretary of the Scottish Men’s Sheds Association (SMSA). Willie highlighted two key points, which were themes throughout the rest of the afternoon:

  • The importance of Sheds not being regulated by outside agencies, e.g. government – this was something that those involved in Sheds felt particularly strong about. As noted by Professor Mike Osborne, the Director of CR&DALL, at the start of the afternoon, the reduction in government support for adult education has created a need for people to organise themselves in order to access lifelong learning opportunities. Thus, those who attend Sheds feel strongly about preserving the independence of the space, as well as its democratic dynamic.
  • How to ensure the sustainability of Sheds, and community projects in general – Willie described how the SMSA can support Sheds across Scotland by offering advice on applying for funding, how to keep things like rental costs low, and using mechanisms such as the Community Empowerment Bill and Community Asset Transfers to their advantage. Noting the difficulty that many community projects face in sustaining themselves long-term, Willie highlighted the Clydebank Independent Resource Centre (CIRC), which has been running for over 40 years, as a rare but good example of how sustainability can be achieved.

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…and the big picture internationally

The second speaker of the day was Professor Barry Golding from Federation University Australia. Barry is the most prolific researcher in the area of Men’s Sheds, and published The Men’s Shed Movement: The Company of Men last year. Barry described the origins of the movement in Australia, and suggested it took off due to its provision of the three key things that men need: somewhere to go, something to do, and someone to talk to.

Barry also emphasised the importance of not formalising Men’s Sheds, and particularly not promoting the spaces as somewhere where men with health issues go (not a very attractive prospect to an outsider!) This point was also picked up by David Helmers, CEO of the Australian Men’s Shed’s Association. David described the experience of one Australian Shed who had a busload of patients arrive after being referred by health services. The point of the Shed is to create a third space for men (other than home or work) where they can relax and socialise with their peers. Any learning or health improvements that arise from this is coincidental and not forced.

Barry and David were followed by John Evoy of the International Men’s Shed Organisation (IMSO). John focused on the experience of Sheds in Ireland, noting the impact of the recession as a particular reason why the movement has taken off in Ireland. The IMSO’s aim is to support a million men through Sheds by 2022.

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Strengthening the movement and using evidence

To finish the afternoon, two panels comprising Shed members and researchers considered the questions of how to strengthen and sustain the Men’s Sheds movement, and how research might be beneficial to this.

Shed members on the panel and in the audience suggested that changing the stereotype of Sheds as spaces for older men with health (particularly mental) issues is important. In fact, men of any age are welcome to attend their local Shed, and current members are particularly keen to encourage this in order to support the intergenerational transmission of practical skills that are otherwise at risk of being lost.

In terms of available evidence, it was noted that research on Men’s Sheds is still scarce, and focused on the Australian experience. Catherine Lido, a lecturer in psychology in the university’s School of Education, discussed the pros and cons of carrying out a systematic evaluation of the movement in the UK. Again, the importance of the democratic nature of Sheds was raised – allowing outside agencies, particularly government, to come in and carry out research would involve the loss of some control. Any research conducted would have to be participatory, in order that Shed members did not feel like they were the subject of an ‘experiment’. Barry Golding highlighted, however, that there is currently almost no data on UK Sheds available; rectifying this could strengthen Sheds’ chances of being successful in applications for funding to support their running costs.

If you enjoyed reading this, you may also be interested in our previous blog on ‘makerspaces‘, which have drawn comparisons with the Men’s Sheds movement.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

In support of qualitative research: the value of qualitative insight for policy formation

For many people, working in the tangible, measurable area of hard figures provides an element of certainty to decision making processes. It is perhaps for this reason that quantitative research was, for many years, the largely uncontested preference for decision makers and people looking for research to evidence their decisions.research

Some criticisms that are often made of qualitative research are that it:

  • can be limited in scope and size and have a longer turnaround time than quantitative studies;
  • can be difficult to replicate and scale to achieve multiple results across multiple test sites
  • can be too reliant on researcher interpretation, perception and experience, and therefore too exposed to bias and unreliability.

In contrast, quantitative research is stereotypically presented as producing results that are consistent and replicable; and therefore ‘higher quality’ and ‘more valid’.

A question of quality

Qualitative research has always suffered from a reputatio of being less rigorous. Instead of dealing with empirical data, it deals with the more human side of research and the effects of a programme. It questions the reasoning of understanding, and the emotional implications of an intervention. As a result, qualitative researchers approach their subject from an entirely different epistemological standpoint (i.e. they have a different view of what ‘knowledge’ is, what should be judged as evidence, and what should not).

This challenges the understanding of what is meant by “research standards”. While quantitative researchers base their understanding on demonstrable results which can be proven and replicated to the same standard, qualitative research brings to the fore questions of researcher subjectivity, the concepts of validity and reliability of results and questions of ethics. It also stresses the importance not only of measuring information to gain results, but gaining results through examining and interpreting experiences and social contexts. It considers these social factors on policy outcomes rather than by categorical measurement using a predefined scale.

A mixed methods approach

While this traditional dichotomy between qualitative and quantitative research methods is convenient, in practice many organisations value the social dimension especially when looking at understanding the impact of policy interventions.

In fact many local authorities and public sector bodies, including the Greater London Authority (GLA), are increasingly looking to qualitative researchers to form part of their wider research teams. In a policy context, it is clear that qualitative research has its place alongside quantitative research as part of a mixed methods approach to evidence based policy making.

Some of the things that qualitative research brings to policy research are: a flexible research method (the methods of collection and analysis can easily be changed as the research is being conducted and the data emerges); and very rich data (if done correctly, one study could provide research data for a number of research tasks).

It allows for a deeper understanding of what lies behind results – not just that something has had an impact, but why. It also allows researchers to understand social phenomena from an individual perspective and consider the specific contexts and conditions which have contributed to it (for example, the experience of stigma or discrimination).group-discussion_unsplash

Giving a voice to marginalised groups

Qualitative research is also finding a role in evaluative research teams, looking at the meanings and constructions which made an intervention effective or ineffective and potential steps to make it more successful in the future.

One example is in engaging with hard-to-reach or marginalised people. While quantitative research would tell you that certain groups of people engage less frequently in community groups for example, qualitative research would help to explore what motivates people to engage, and therefore tease out potential methods to increase engagement. Qualitative research also allows for bespoke research questions on niche topics to be created and explored thoroughly. This can be useful for local authorities who wish to explore issues at a local level with specific communities which would not necessarily be distinct within wider national quantitative data sets and statistics.

Supporting the personalisation agenda with bespoke research

Qualitative research is also becoming more popular as a supplementary option to hard data and raw statistics because of the increased importance which is being placed on individual experience and personalisation in public services, particularly, but not exclusively within health and social care. Qualitative data allows researchers to get an in-depth view of how people experience services.

While it will never be a replacement for the empirical data produced by quantitative data, qualitative data brings its own benefits and enhances understanding around policies in a way that hard data often cannot. It encourages professionals to think beyond figures as a benchmark for outcomes. It also allows them to gain rich data on the experiences of marginalised groups in society, who often go unrepresented in large national quantitative data sets.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

 

Why a holistic approach to public health and social care needs a wider evidence base … and how Social Policy and Practice can help

SPP screenshot2016 has been described as “make or break time for the NHS”, and with pressures on finances increasing, social care and public health are in the spotlight. Around £1 in every £5 of NHS spending is estimated to be the result of ill health attributable to the big five risk factors of smoking, alcohol, poor diet, obesity and inactivity. Investing in prevention, and understanding the complex wider community and social factors that lead to poor health, is therefore important. In cash-strapped local authorities however, investment in preventative projects can be sidelined in the face of tackling acute issues.

Prevention and behaviour change are linked

Recent health policy has included an expectation that individuals should take greater responsibility for their own health. But where we are talking about behaviour change, there is no quick fix. Glib use of the term ‘nudge’ to promote change can suggest that laziness is the only issue. However, research such as that by the King’s Fund has highlighted that motivation and confidence are essential if people are to successfully modify their health behaviours.

Practitioners within the field of both public health and social care need help understanding what works – but as two great recent blogs from the Alliance for Useful Evidence noted, change can be achieved in multiple ways and evidence shouldn’t be used to prove a service works but as part of a journey of improvement and learning.

We talk about the “caring professions”, but it seems that it can be difficult to maintain a focus on the ‘person not the patient’ when budgets are being cut. Well-reported issues such as the rise in the use of 15-minute home care appointments are just one symptom of this. More generally, making time to consider alternative approaches or learn from good practice elsewhere can be hard. That is where having access to a trusted database can help.

Trusted source of research and ideas

The Alliance for Useful Evidence, most recently in its practice guide to using research evidence, has 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 partners who contribute to the database – Centre for Policy on Ageing, Idox Information Service, National Children’s Bureau, the NSPCC and the Social Care Institute for Excellence – are all committed to sharing their focused collections with the wider world of researchers and to influence policy and practice.

Social Policy and Practice is the UK’s only national social science database embracing social care, social policy, social services, and public policy. It 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. And importantly, it supports the ability to take a holistic approach to improving outcomes, by covering social issues such as poor housing, regeneration, active ageing, resilience and capacity building.


Find out more about the development of the Social Policy and Practice database in this article from CILIP Update. Update is the leading publication for the library, information and knowledge management community and they’ve given us permission to share this article.

If you are interested in using the Social Policy and Practice (SPP) database for evidence and research in health and social care, please visit www.spandp.net for more information and to request a free trial.

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

Pokémon Go for health improvements?

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by Stacey Dingwall

Due to the number of headlines, stories and anecdotes it’s generated, you would be forgiven for thinking that Pokémon Go had been around for months. In fact, the app only officially launched in the UK on the 14th of July, following its initial rollout a week before in the US, Australia and New Zealand. In amongst reports of players straying onto private property, construction sites and train tracks, as well as criminals and police forces using the game’s lure function to their advantage, have been suggestions that the app has real potential to improve the health and fitness of its players.

Transformed from its 90s incarnation of a trading cards game into a GPS powered app, Pokémon Go nevertheless retains its main aim: gotta catch ‘em all. Pokémon appear to players – trainers as they are known in the game – as they move around their area. Crucially, some Pokémon are only available in certain areas (or continents!), meaning that trainers will not be able to achieve the game’s objective unless they move around further than their immediate location.

Gotta catch the…health benefits?

This is where the potential health benefits lie. The first player to catch them all (or all of those available in his country, at least), Roberto Vazquez told journalists that his quest had led to him walking 165 miles (12-25 per day), losing 25lbs in the process. Plastic surgeons Clinic Compare have even managed to calculate how many Pokémon the average person would have to catch in order to lose weight, by comparing the number of calories burned per hour with the average amount of time it takes players to catch a single Pokémon. For example, according to their estimates, it would take 16.27 days for a 165lb female playing the game for 43 minutes each day to lose 1lb, while jogging at a speed of five miles per hour.

It has also been suggested that the app has the potential to help children meet their recommended physical activity levels, without even realising it. With evidence indicating that children are only almost half as likely to want to play outdoors than their parents did at their age, choosing to stay indoors and watch TV or play video games instead, it could be argued that Pokémon Go presents the perfect opportunity to combine indoor and outdoor play.

What does the evidence say?

It’s important to acknowledge that these examples are either anecdotal or based on averages not actually generated by the app itself. While it’s still too early to collect reliable statistics on the game’s potential health impact, qualified medical professionals have stated their belief that it may be a force for good. In an editorial for the BMJ, Glasgow-based GP Margaret McCartney notes the potential for Pokémon Go and similar apps to “make the streets an active, reclaimed playground”, which she describes as a “tantalising side effect” of an app that is not specifically marketed as having the potential to positively impact on players’ health and wellbeing.

Pokémon Go is not the first entertainment-based game to have caught the eye of professionals and policymakers due to its potential for promoting physical activity. Evaluations of Nintendo Wii Fit, for example, have suggested that regular use has the potential to have a positive impact on different groups of people, including those with MS. Regular use is obviously essential in order to generate reliable evidence of whether or not Pokémon Go can have any genuine impact on health and wellbeing. Although cynics may argue that the app is just another fad that will soon die down, the data suggests it’s here to stay for at least the foreseeable future, with 6.1 million trainers in Britain alone, 87% of which were still playing a week after downloading.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our profile of 12 great STEM apps for primary and secondary pupils.

Implementation science: why using evidence doesn’t guarantee success

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Using evidence in policy making is not a new concept. In recent years it has become commonplace across all areas of policy in the UK, with the introduction of the What Works centres being just one example of this. Policy makers also use evidence to defend the rationale of their initiatives and programmes. But a large evidence base does not necessarily guarantee a successful outcome for a programme or initiative. Without an effective implementation strategy, evidence might as well not exist.

Linking evidence use to implementation within policy is one of the key challenges for policy-makers and those on the frontline of service delivery. Implementation science is an emerging discipline which looks at the nature of implementation, and how it can affect the success of a programme or policy.

Introducing the Hexagon Tool

This tool was developed by the National Implementation Research Network. It outlines six broad factors that should be considered to promote effective implementation of programmes. Designed in a US context for application at state and district levels, many of the ideas about what makes for good implementation are relevant more broadly.

  1. Needs (of service user) – consider how well the programme or practice being implemented might meet identified needs.
  2. Fit – with current and pre-existing initiatives, priorities, structures, support, and local community values and context.
  3. Resource availability – for training, staffing, technology supports, data systems, and administration
  4. Evidence – indicating the outcomes that might be expected if the programme practices are implemented well (assessment criteria)
  5. Readiness for replication – including any expert assistance available, the number of existing replications, examples of best practice for observation, and how well the programme is operationalised.
  6. Capacity to implement – as intended, and to sustain and improve implementation over time
The Hexagon Tool How to cite: Blase, K., Kiser, L. and Van Dyke, M (2013) The Hexagon Tool: Exploring context. Chapel Hill, NC: National Implementation Research Network, FPG Child Development Institute, University of North Carolina.

The Hexagon Tool
Blase, K., Kiser, L. and Van Dyke, M (2013) The Hexagon Tool: Exploring context. Chapel Hill, NC: National Implementation Research Network, FPG Child Development Institute, University of North Carolina.

In addition to the hexagon, other useful frameworks for implementation exist. Some are more practical and others are more conceptual. These may link to theories underpinning the practice of implementation of programme strategies, or discuss the idea of values within systems.

However, frameworks only provide some of the knowledge and infrastructure for implementation. They do not take account of the skills, abilities, values and existing experience of “implementers”. All of these can have a significant impact on how a programme or strategy is implemented.Solution and business words jigsaw

Systems change and innovation

Implementation science has previously focused on changing the behaviour of individual practitioners. However, unless you change the understanding of the wider structures and systems, and implement whole system change, you won’t achieve practitioner change.

Alignment within systems, both within organisations in a hierarchical sense, but also across systems in order to create coherence across services, is important. Many service users have experience of receiving support simultaneously from a number of different organisations. Implementation scientists stress that it is important to align funding, outcomes, compliance and overall goals of parallel organisations in order to effectively implement programmes. This can be a major challenge.

One reason why this can be so challenging is the difference in values and experiences of the individual front line workers implementing a new programme on the ground. Teachers have a very different understanding, training and set of experiences relating to children than those of social workers, or those who work in youth criminal justice. The inherent and fundamental philosophical beliefs which drive the practice of different professionals will have an impact on how they implement a programme, regardless of how thorough guidelines are.

This, implementation scientists suggest, needs to be taken account of, and steps taken to try and more closely align the thinking of different professionals and agencies (interagency working) in order to effectively, and coherently implement new programmes.

Evidence is contextual

Implementation science raises some interesting points about how to facilitate change and implement new initiatives. It reminds us that no intervention – no matter how much evidence is produced in support of its effectiveness elsewhere – is guaranteed to be a success. It highlights the often overlooked elements to intervention strategies, such as the need to be context aware, and aware of the values of the people who are implementing the changes, and those affected by the changes.

Finally, it highlights the need to encourage wider structural and systems change, rather than just changing the behaviour of individual practitioners. This is the way to ensure lasting, sustainable and successful implementation of evidence-informed policy interventions and programmes.


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

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:

Is the total academisation of schools in England a good idea?

by Stacey Dingwall

In one of the major announcements made as part of last week’s Budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, declared that all schools in England must become academies by 2020, or at least have official plans to do so by 2022. Any schools who fail to comply with this timetable will be forced to do so under new powers adopted by the government.

The policy, Osborne claimed, would “set schools free from local bureaucracy” and is part of his government’s plan to “make sure that every child gets the best start in life”. As the plan was announced, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan tweeted that “Full academisation will empower great teachers & leaders giving them autonomy and accountability to let their schools succeed”. Writing in a white paper published the following day, her department stated that removing schools from local authority control would help to “empower local communities, putting children and parents first and clearly defining the role of local government”.

More academies – the reaction

Reactions to the announcement were broadly negative, with the reform attracting criticism from local authorities, the shadow education secretary, unions, teachers, think tanks and parents, amongst others. Alongside Conor Ryan, Director of Research at the Sutton Trust, many pointed towards the fact that limited evidence exists of academies’ ability to improve the attainment levels of disadvantaged pupils, which was their original purpose. A loss of accountability to parents was also raised as a concern by some, including the Local Government Association, who stated that they opposed the handing over of “significant” powers in areas – including the curriculum – to “unelected civil servants”.

It was also noted that the government has decided to go ahead with the reform despite a recent letter to Morgan from Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Schools in England and head of Ofsted, which described the results of recent HMI inspections of academies as “worrying”. Wilshaw also wrote that many of the inspected multi-academy trusts displayed the same weaknesses as the worst performing local education authorities, and that the large salaries paid to the chief executives of these trusts was a “poor use of public money”.

Ongoing concerns

The Budget announcement comes almost two years after we first looked at issues with the academies programme on the blog. At that time, we reported on concerns that money which could be spent on addressing the shortage of school places in London was instead being used to open academies in areas where there was no urgent need for more places.

International experience: America and the Netherlands

After facing similar criticism to the English programme of failing to improve the attainment of poorer pupils, some are suggesting that the American charter schools programme, which heavily influenced the creation of the academies programme, is in decline. The Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, continues to be a vocal opponent of the movement, despite facing legal challenges over his refusal to guarantee space to new and expanding charter schools.

Speaking at a town hall meeting in South Carolina in November 2015, former charter supporter and potential Democrat presidential nominee Hillary Clinton voiced her opinion that charter schools do not engage with the “hardest-to-reach” kids, or if they do, “they don’t keep them”.

Writing for the Institute of Education, University College London blog, Toby Greany and Melanie Ehren considered the experience of the Netherlands, a country whose schools system has higher rates of autonomy than England. Two issues experienced by the Dutch Schools Boards, which were set up to oversee groups of primary schools, are highlighted as particularly relevant for England:

  1. Some Boards have been placed into special financial measures due to their failure to correctly predict their pupil numbers; this, it is argued, could befall academies in England who cover more than one local authority area.
  2. Due to limited engagement with teaching staff and parents, the Boards have not managed to fully embed themselves as legitimate in the eyes of society.

Evidence update

Since our 2014 blog, both the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) have published new evidence on academies, focusing on their impact on pupil attainment. In their May 2015 review of available evidence, the NFER noted several difficulties in evaluating the performance of academies due to several gaps in the evidence. The review concluded that while there is some evidence to suggest that sponsored secondary academies have had a positive impact on attainment, no significant difference in progress could be found between converter academies and similar non-academy schools. In addition, no conclusive evidence was found of the impact of academisation on primary pupils’ attainment.

In a think piece published alongside the evidence review, the NFER concluded that further expansion of the academies programme by the government would require the following factors to justify it:

  • a clearly articulated theory of change
  • the right evidence
  • evaluation
  • sufficient capacity
  • accountability

Given the reaction to the Budget’s announcement, it can be assumed that most are of the opinion that the government has not yet managed to provide sufficient justification for its decision.


Further reading from our blog on the English education system:

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: