The authors of the report ‘UK What Works Centres: Aims, methods and contexts’ share the findings of their research and the lessons that can be learnt by the wider sector.
The UK is unique in having a network of What Works Centres that aim to improve how research is used to inform public policy and practice. These nine Centres* focus on different areas of social policy: Ageing; Crime Reduction, Early Intervention, Education, Health and Social Care, Wellbeing, and Local Economic Growth, with two regional Centres working across public policy in Scotland and Wales. The network represents one of the first attempts to take a national approach to prioritising the use of evidence in public policy decision-making, and, unsurprisingly, is drawing significant attention globally.
Despite this interest, to date there hasn’t been a comprehensive study of the range of approaches being undertaken by the Centres, which is why we’re delighted that the ESRC commissioned us to look at this in more detail. Our study, published this month, compares and contrasts the work of the nine Centres, and the contexts within which they sit.
What we found
What Works Centres are undertaking a number of consistent core functions across their respective fields: building a more robust and comprehensive evidence base, raising awareness and understanding regarding the use of evidence, and influencing local and national policy to consider evidence more effectively. Most Centres have invested a significant amount of time and resources into synthesising evidence, systematically reviewing the evidence base, and communicating the findings through reports, toolkits, guides and events. This common focus is represented by the blue shaded area below:
Over time, more Centres are working directly with their target audiences, supporting the uptake of research, working closely with policymakers and practitioners to promote evidence-informed decision making and, in some cases, directly funding evidence-based programmes.
What surprised us in this study was the number of ways that Centres are different from one another. Despite playing similar roles in bridging between research, policy and practice, we found that Centres can vary significantly in terms of their remit and functions, as well as in the approaches they use to deliver these key functions. Take, for instance, the variation in standards used to determine the strength and reliability of evidence across the different stages of producing, assessing and communicating evidence. Centres also vary in the degree to which they embed themselves in the wider, non-evidence systems (e.g. policy, accountability) as a means to building and exerting influence.
What this means
Some variation across the Centres is, of course, due to the contexts they work in and the different remits and constraints that apply. But some may be serendipitous, depending on decisions made by different individuals at a particular moment in time. Being opportunistic, of course, should not be discouraged. At the same time, it appears that Centres may benefit from thoroughly analysing the nature of the current evidence system, what is and isn’t working, and where they could contribute most effectively. There is also scope perhaps for Centres to learn more from each other and develop common approaches to shared functions.
Although this study is focused on the work of the What Works Centres, it’s potentially relevant to anyone interested in how evidence intermediaries work within wider systems. The conceptual framework developed for the study (see figure above) has potential applications and implications for a wide variety of research intermediaries and, by encouraging people to think in a systems-based manner, we hope can help identify the most effective strategies for different functions in that evidence system.
In other words, we can learn ‘what works’ about ‘what works’.
David Gough is Professor of Evidence Informed Policy and Practice and Director of the EPPI-Centre at UCL.
Chris Maidment is a Research Officer at the EPPI-Centre at UCL with experience in local government policy.
Jonathan Sharples is a Professorial Research Associate at EPPI-Centre at UCL, on secondment to the Education Endowment Foundation.
* At the time of writing, the tenth What Works Centre (for Children’s Social Care) was still in development.