In the latest of our series of Q&As with leading advocates of the use of evidence in policymaking and practice, we talk to Jonathan Breckon. Jonathan is Head of the Alliance for Useful Evidence – a partnership which champions the need for useful evidence, providing a focal point for improving and extending the use of social research and evidence in the UK.
Jonathan, what led you to a role about promoting and improving knowledge development?
There are two ways in which I am interested in knowledge development; professionally I have always worked around universities, loved doing and finding out new research and working within research in UK. I have always been conscious however, of the gap between research and front line services, even when research is relevant to the service, and felt this was a great loss and disadvantage to public services.
My personal interest, as a user of public services, with my kids going through services such as schools, health and sports, I have been desperately aware that things are business as usual rather than continuously striving for innovation and change. The debate is now all about money and reductions when it should be about improvement and future proofing.
We don’t always know what it takes to bridge the gap between what we need, and what services can provide; research can actually help that. The What Works approach is really important but very hard, as it’s difficult to stop doing things we have already invested in. An evidence-based research approach can challenge and support this evaluation and we have a moral duty to do it and not continue to invest in services which don’t work.
What do you think the main benefits of developing your knowledge are?
The challenge of seeing if things work or not, why they work, where they work and who they work for – developing your knowledge is the critical aspect of improving how you do things.
It’s also important for a whole host of other benefits. I particularly like Carol Weiss’ work, which is instrumental – this ‘enlightment’ operational research should not be dismissed. This approach can support the ideas of learning continuously through research; it implies a continuous review of theory, methods, practice and we should always be striving to improve our methods and outcomes.
When people are talking to you about evidence, research or knowledge, what do they most frequently raise as issues?
The most common one is that investing in evidence is just rhetoric; politicians, charities, parties etc will never really be informed by the research agenda, and I agree. We aren’t in a super-rational culture, it’s about our wider culture, values and beliefs as well. But it’s a fundamental misunderstanding that research trumps anything. It is part of the mix, part of the overall democratic and rational approach to doing anything.
The Behavioural Insights Team has a massive role to play in understanding the biases in how we make decisions, whether in prisons, police, policy etc. We don’t work rationally all the time and evidence can help us understand the messiness of policy making. We just need it to be a bigger part of the mix.
Everybody has this view that they use evidence but we don’t really understand how effectively they use it.
What are the hard to spot mistakes when it comes to developing your knowledge, which you really need to avoid?
The main one is that not all evidence is equal; that you have to make judgements about it. This is hard for those writing the research – it’s not about the quality of the research, and it’s about the point of view from demand. They need some things and not others.
The big challenge, if you are looking at impact, is you need different approaches, experiments, systematic reviews – one study is not enough. Such as when you see studies reported in newspapers – until replicated we don’t really know if it is robust. You need to avoid literature reviews where you cherry pick, go to something which is transparent and is systematic. This is true of both policy makers and researchers’ point of view; we underestimate the challenges facing both sides.
Need more about impact. We are very good at qualitative – world class – but we are behind in quantitative methods. It is being addressed but it will need to filter through.
How do you think people will be doing evidence, research and knowledge development in 5 years’ time?
What Works Centres will, I hope, be a key part of the evidence ecosystem, in the way that NICE have done, helping providers and policy makers make decisions. Although it doesn’t do research itself it sucks in research and uses it well.
There will always be critics of them, even of just the name, but they will change the system. Some have been around for a while and are well established, but others are new and are just about to be. As well as synthesising research they will commission new work. For instance in wellbeing, we know a lot about the correlation with health and wellbeing but don’t know a lot about what will work in improving it.
Technology makes it very difficult to guess about the future, who would have predicted the work in social media research? Big data is emerging now and in 5 years’ time might be a standard tool. The fundamental principles like statistics will be there but we will have to adapt to the possibilities offered by technology
If you had a list of ‘best-kept secrets’ about research, evidence and knowledge you would recommend, what would you include and why?
Just because you have done a social science masters and PhD, does not make you an expert in evidence, partly because people over-specialise. People need open their minds to different methods and how people do it in other places. The Department for International Development have an amazing range of techniques, nothing like anything you have seen, with a database of all the research they have funded or delivered.
Emerging opportunities such as social media research – still early days and fundamentally new, and could have a huge impact. Most people’s default though is to go to an expert and be frightened off journals and academics; I don’t think you always have to commission something new, it’s about variety, breadth and developing your understanding in as many ways as possible.
You can also read Q&As with Tim Allen, Local Government Knowledge Navigator; Clive Grace, Local Government Knowledge Navigator; Sarah Jennings of the Knowledge Hub; and Kim Ryley, recent Past President of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives.