The walls of my home have absorbed many a philosophical debate about hot topics such as welfare reform, the living wage, immigration and NHS funding. My response to claims I do not agree with is ‘where’s your evidence?’ This makes my husband reach for his phone to carry out some speedy research on the topic in an attempt to substantiate his argument. Whilst my domestic life is a world away from my work in local government , the argument or campaign for evidence in policy making has been gaining ground since the 1999 White Paper on Modernising Government which asked for ‘better use of evidence and research in policy making and better focus on policies that will deliver long term goals’.
Seventeen years on, there remains a view amongst scientists that there is a ‘tendency for policymakers to produce ideological rather than ‘evidence based’ decisions’. Recent legislation in Wales; the Well-being of Future Generations Act (2015), has pushed the evidence agenda forward by requiring a well-being assessment, which for Cardiff, informs a city-wide strategy. The Act sets out a number of considerations that policymakers must take into account such as future trends and community needs.
Public bodies also need to ensure integration of policy and strategy. To meet this requirement in Cardiff Council, we have developed a Policy Forum which is helping us to break down silos and encourage greater cross-departmental working. This also provides us with a platform to engage with policy colleagues across the public, private and third sectors to see how we can work more effectively together. We are using the Forum to build capacity in our policy team and allow colleagues to refresh their skills and expand their knowledge. As such, I was excited to work with Alliance for Useful Evidence organising an Evidence Masterclass to ensure colleagues are in the best position to support elected members making key decisions for the capital. At a time of significant financial pressure, it is even more critical that we have the skills required to identify the best information and that plans are based on evidence.
In the masterclass, we were reminded of the wide range of information available to us and how to assess its robustness. Another challenge we explored was accessing information – with cuts putting pressure on public services, how can we access reliable information at low cost? We were directed to a range of free sources and were inspired to also look at how we can build tailor-made partnerships externally to increase our access to research. Finally, as someone with a passion for discourse analysis, I was especially inspired to explore new ideas around communicating evidence to stakeholders. In an information age, how do you ensure your message gets across? The session had useful suggestions in how we meet this challenge and we are looking into how we can incorporate these into our current practice. It was great to see Policy Forum members fired up to take forward their learning from the session. There was a real buzz in the room throughout the day and that energy has remained. The masterclass has given us a new framework for policy making which we can use as we move forward.
Even though debates with my husband are likely to continue along a similar vein, my local government colleagues are now armed with a new approach and renewed enthusiasm to ensure that we can carry out evidence informed policy making and not policy based research.
Christine Boston is Corporate Policy Manager at Cardiff Council.
Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. 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.