Evidence is a viable and necessary part of decision-making in the social sector. At the Alliance for Useful Evidence, we’re confident that evidence-informed policy and practice isn’t just “a pipe dream“.
Our confidence stems from the UK’s flourishing evidence ecosystem which we have been mapping in an ongoing exercise. Our map visually demonstrates the amazing diversity in the UK’s social policy evidence world.
With around 3,000 organisations interested in promoting the greater use of evidence across the social sector, academia, local and national government, the Alliance network is a rich source of good practice.
Challenges and opportunities for increasing evidence use
Arguably, decision-making culture in the politics and service commissioning is working against us. There’s a minimal expectation that the evidence behind a policy will be sought out or examined.
For example, our joint report on promoting transparency around evidence use in policy showed it’s not easy to find the evidence behind the UK government policies (Rutter and Gold, 2015)
To test this yourself, try to find the rationale for government policies on Gov.uk. You’ll soon see how difficult it is to track down the evidence behind a policy.
We also know that commissioners and policy makers often put evidence into a “too hard to do” box – perhaps due to competing claims and different types of evidence.
For evidence to have greater impact on decision-making, we have to:
- influence stakeholders, like commissioners and policy makers
- focus on consumers in the evidence ecosystem
- increase demand for appropriate evidence.
Making evidence a core component of decision-making
One challenge to overcome is the perception that evidence is the cure-all to social policy and practice decision-making.
Increasing the use of evidence is not about slavishly following research findings. We see research as having a role in complex decision-making, where stakeholder views, professional judgement and the local, organisational and political context can all play a part (Nesta and Alliance for Useful Evidence, 2016).
And using evidence as a core component of decision-making has been gaining traction. Most recently, management theory outlined 4 key components in evidence-based management, including the judicious use of research and evaluation (Barends, Rousseau and Briner, 2014).
How we can support the demand for evidence?
To find out what works to help research use in policy and practice, we launched the Science of Using Science project in partnership with the EPPI Centre at UCL and funded by the Wellcome Trust and What Works Centre for Wellbeing.
This research project looked at the steps that translate research into decision-making. They also looked at broader lessons from social science, including management studies and behavioural psychology.
See our tips to improve the likelihood of your research or evaluation being used. Our key finding was to think broadly and look at a range of interventions.
3 steps to making evidence useful
- Producing a nice-looking report, or briefing, and adding it to a website or blanket mail-out alone isn’t effective. Your research or evaluation is more likely to land if you tailor it to your audience and social marketing techniques are useful.
- Promoting the skills of your target audience has a positive effect. It supports decision-makers when they judge evidence and use it to plan and budget. Therefore, evidence producers and intermediaries should increase the skills, training and knowledge of evidence consumers.
- Add other successful interventions such as improved structures and decision-making processes, and hardwire evidence into them so the use of evidence becomes the norm. A good example is the Evidence Transparency Framework, encouraging government departments to show the workings behind policies.
We know more needs to be done to connect with commissioners and policy makers across all levels of government and the social sector.
Learning about what helps these groups read and take evidence on-board is in its infancy, but we plan to publish case studies from the social sector towards the end of 2016.
Pippa Coutts is the Scottish Lead and Project Manager at the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Pippa has a background in research and policy in the social sector, specifically in Scotland. The original blog was published on the NSPCC website.
Remember you can join us (it’s free and open to all) and find out more about the how we champion the use of evidence in social policy and practice.