The launch of the government’s What Works Network shows real commitment to evidence-based policy-making, says NatCen’s Penny Young. But money and clout will also be needed to help research achieve real cut-through.
What it will take to make What Works work
UK Justice Secretary Chris Grayling appeared to demonstrate a disdain for evidence-based policy making during a statement to the House of Commons in January when he rejected the need to pilot major changes in the probation service with the now infamous phrase: “Sometimes those in government just have to believe in something and do it.”
Thus the government’s announcement this week that it is launching four new What Works evidence centres for social policy is welcome to those of us who believe in the importance of research for informed policy making. And it suggests that Mr Grayling’s view is not necessarily the dominant position in the Cabinet.
“There needs to be clear mechanisms to ensure that ministers and departments take notice of evidence reviews, but it’s not obvious that there will be”
In fact, the decision to invest in the What Works centres demonstrates a real commitment from the government. The new evidence centres have the potential to ensure that public money is well spent and that research that is undertaken has an impact beyond the purpose for which it was commissioned.
But let’s not get too enthusiastic just yet. There isn’t enough detail in the Cabinet Office announcement to confidently assess whether the new centres will deliver what government hopes. At NatCen we have some insight on why research doesn’t always cut through in the way it might so here are some of our thoughts on what will be needed for the initiative to be a true success.
Money: Inevitably, the first question has to be about whether there will be a return on this investment. The announcement rightly talks about £200bn of public investment in policy and the need to spend this wisely. But the Centre for Economic Growth is, according to the statement, only receiving £1m over 3 years. That’s a minuscule amount relative to what is spent on interventions. Imagine a world where 1% of the spend on policy interventions was spent on evaluation and dissemination – that would be £2bn.
Research with clout: We all know that research findings do not always fall into line with political ideology and there is some scepticism within any government about the need to invest in research. Thus there needs to be clear mechanisms to ensure that ministers and departments take notice of evidence reviews, but it’s not obvious that there will be. Moreover, the What Works centres are tasked with disseminating and presenting their findings, but in practice much depends on relationships. So there will have to be some consideration of how the centres intend to develop strong relationships with users.
An advocate with teeth: In terms of delivering impact, it is also worth thinking about what is absent from the announcement. Part way down the government press release it is revealed that the decision about whether to appoint a new chief social scientist has been put off again. This comes only a week after it was reported in The Guardian that the new appointment was imminent, suggesting quite a late u-turn on the post. And this decision flies in the face of the widespread view among the research community that social science will only achieve cut-through in government if the post is reinstated. If the centres are to be a success they need an advocate at the heart of government who has some teeth.
Evaluation: It will be important to look at major policy initiatives in the coming years and at the impact that the centres have had on policy. This will be a sure fire way of knowing whether the centres are cutting through, or whether they prove to be white elephants.
Facilitating impact: As research practitioners, we find that one real barrier to research having real impact is that government departments are reluctant to let researchers speaking freely at the time of publication. A step-change in impact would be achieved by having a more open attitude in government marketing and communications teams to enable media access to the researchers themselves.
The government is making a bold and welcome step in establishing the What Works centres. But there is clearly much still to be done if the initiative is to succeed. Delivering genuine impact is one of the most difficult challenges faced by any social research organisation, but this is a particular challenge for a new body. Thus, the What Works centres will need considerable financial and political backing if they are to fulfil their potential – but they can also learn the lessons of other organisations already seeking to have impact in this space.
Penny Young is chief executive of NatCen Social Research