It’s surprising, given the relative absence of think tanks and research centres in Northern Ireland, that a local What Works Centre has not been set up to assist policy makers in this jurisdiction. Peter O’Neill, Northern Ireland Manager of the Alliance for Useful Evidence, argues that it is an opportune moment to look at establishing such a centre.
What Works in Northern Ireland? Not a lot is likely to be the cynical answer to this question from many interests at the moment!
But despite the current impasse on Welfare Reform and possible collapse of the Executive, life goes on in Northern Irish policy circles with a number of initiatives designed to improve public services such as an embryonic public sector innovation lab and the QPol public engagement project at Queen’s University Belfast.
However one weakness in the local policy ecosystem is the absence of a What Works Centre (WWC) in the region. Unlike Scotland and Wales, no such centre exists in Northern Ireland to improve the use of evidence in making better decisions on public services. The development of a WWC in Northern Ireland, perhaps modelled on the Public Policy Institute for Wales, could provide a significant means of support to local policy makers by providing authoritative and independent advice.
The What Works initiative is based on the principle that good decision-making should be informed by the best available evidence on what works and what fails. It is argued by government that the What Works Centres are fundamentally different from standard research centres in that they aim to directly support policy makers, commissioners and local practitioners by providing reliable, accessible reviews which consider the likely impact of policy initiatives.
In July 2011 the UK Government made a commitment to investigate the creation of a ‘NICE for social policy’ in the Open Public Services white paper. This proposal was developed in the Civil Service Reform Plan, and the What Works initiative was launched in March 2013. There are now 9 independent What Works Centres in the UK (none of which are based in Northern Ireland):
- The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE),
- The What Works Centre for Crime Reduction, hosted by the College of Policing,
- The Early Intervention Foundation (EIF),
- The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), established by the Sutton Trust,
- The What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth (LEG), hosted by LSE with Arup and the Centre for Cities,
- The Centre for Ageing Better, established by the Big Lottery Fund,
- The What Works Centre for Wellbeing,
- What Works Scotland, and
- The Public Policy Institute for Wales.
Although strictly speaking What Works Scotland and the Public Policy Institute for Wales are ‘associate members’ of the network, all of the centres are funded by a combination of state and non-government sources including the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Big Lottery Fund. The What Works National Adviser, Dr David Halpern, and a team in the Cabinet Office support the network. In addition to working with the WWCs, this initiative aims to support evidence-based decision making across the UK government by sharing findings from the What Works Centres, and supporting a civil service with the skills, capability and commitment to use evidence effectively – but it is difficult to see how this can have full UK coverage without the involvement of a Northern Ireland centre.
What could work in Northern Ireland?
Given the relative absence of think tanks and independent research centres in Northern Ireland, I would contend that the establishment of a local WWC, in partnership with Higher Education Institutions and other stakeholders, could be of particular benefit to policy makers. Key figures in OFMdFM, NISRA, the Cabinet Office, academia and funders such as ESRC and the Big Lottery Fund could be involved in scoping out this proposal and taking forward this discussion. The major issues for consideration will include not only funding but also how to marry closeness to government with the need to maintain independence, in order to avoid charges of biasing the evidence to political needs. However if the will exists I have no doubt that a Northern Irish WWC would work in improving local decision-making and plugging us into wider UK evidence networks.
Peter O’Neill is the Northern Ireland Manager of the Alliance for Useful Evidence.