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

What is good evidence? And how can policymakers and decisionmakers decide what is working and what isn’t, when it comes to deciding where public money is spent and how?

These are the kinds of questions that models and tools such as randomised controlled trials and cost-benefit analysis attempt to answer. The government has also supported the development over the last five years of the What Works Network, which now consists of 10 independent What Works Centres. When talking about impact there’s also been a move to capturing and recognising the value of qualitative data.

As one of our key aims is to support and facilitate the sharing and use of evidence in the public sector, we were interested to read a new publication ‘Mapping the standards of evidence used in UK social policy’.

Standards of evidence

Produced by the Alliance for Useful Evidence, the research has found 18 different Standards of Evidence currently in use across UK social policy.

The report notes that over the last decade there has been increasing interest in grading effectiveness or impact against a level or scale. Typically, the higher up the scale, the more evidence is available. Theoretically this means that decision-makers can have higher confidence in deciding whether a policy or intervention is working.

While all the evidence frameworks generally aim to improve the use of evidence, the different goals of the organisations responsible can shape the frameworks in different ways. They can be used to inform funding decisions, to make recommendations to the wider sector about what works and what doesn’t, or as a resource to help providers to evaluate. And unfortunately this means that the same intervention can be assessed differently depending on which framework is used.

The Alliance for Useful Evidence concludes that while a focus on evidence use is positive, the diversity of evidence standards risks creating confusion. Suggested options for improving the situation include introducing an independent accreditation system, or having a one-stop shop which would make it easier to compare ratings of interventions.

Dissemination and wider engagement

The question of standardising evidence frameworks is just one part of a wider effort to increase transparency. As well as collecting evidence, it’s important that when public money has been invested in carrying out evaluations and impact assessments, that this evidence remain accessible over the longer term and that lessons are learned. It can often seem that government departments have very short organisational memories – especially if they’ve suffered a high churn of staff.

Two projects which we support in Scotland are focused on increasing the dissemination and awareness of evaluation and research evidence. Research Online is Scotland’s labour market information hub. Produced by ourselves and Skills Development Scotland, the portal brings together a range of statistics and research and acts as the centre of a community of practice for labour market researchers, practitioners and policy-makers.

Meanwhile Evaluations Online is a publicly accessible collection of evaluation and research reports from Scottish Enterprise. The reports cover all aspects of Scottish Enterprise’s economic development activities – some of the latest added to the site cover megatrends affecting Scottish tourism, innovation systems and the gender gap, and the commercial flower-growing sector in Scotland.

When working within the policy world it can be easy to suffer from fatigue as ideas appear to be continually recycled, rejected and then revisited as policy fashions change and political parties or factions go in and out of power. The spotlight, often driven by the media, will shine on one hot policy issue – for example, moped crime, cannabis legislation or health spending – and then move on.

Online libraries of evaluations and research reports are one tool which can help support a longer-term culture of learning and improvement within the public sector.

Evidence Week 2018

Inspired by similar objectives, Evidence Week runs from 25th to 28th June 2018 and aims to explore the work of parliamentarians in seeking and scrutinising evidence. It will bring together MPs, peers, parliamentary services and the public to talk about why evidence matters, and how to use and improve research evidence.

This may be the start of wider knowledge sharing about standards of evidence, to help those using them to improve their practice.


The Knowledge Exchange is a member of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Our databases are used by government and the public sector, as well as private-sector consultancies, to keep abreast of policy news and research in social and public policy.

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.