Despite decades of producing excellent research its use in decision-making remains limited in many areas of social policy and practice. The answer may not always be generating and gathering more evidence, rather we should focus on stimulating the demand for it.
We have noted the need to build the evidence behind innovative new approaches and that when appropriate we need to be using more intensive methodologies like RCTs. But is the lack of evidence behind much decision-making due to a lack of data? Or is it that – beyond health – the demand for research and data is not always institutionalised in decision making across some areas of social policy? As we’ve said previously, producing research and analysis is not the end result. We need to actively build the absorptive capacity of decision-makers to judge and integrate the best evidence into their decision-making and ensure it is in a format that is accessible.
This returns to one of the questions that we raised at the beginning of this blog series: how do we make the demand for evidence stronger? What do decision-makers want and need? How do we make evidence useable and compelling so that it cannot be overlooked or ignored? And can we design institutions that make evidence-based decisions the easy option, and ignoring evidence harder?
There are some interesting programmes that are attempting to do this. Take the French Experimentation Fund for Youth. The French Ministry of Youth Affairs created a fund in 2008 to support the “mainstreaming” of experimental – especially randomised – methodologies into the policy making process. Eighteen months ago there were “a few” experiments of this nature in France, but now due to the Fund there are 350 funded projects, involving a range of institutions (both providers and evaluators) covering numerous topics. As well as robustly testing NGO-led interventions to help ground research in practical terms, the fund has also helped build capacity across the evaluation community and stimulated demand for evidence of this nature across Government.
Understanding complex data can be time consuming and require technical skills. What can we do to translate such information into useable formats? The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Commission, Australia’s science agency, developed an interesting approach. They drew upon clinical studies to develop a cookbook on healthy eating, making scientific data useable by a wide audience. Another interesting approach has been developed by Duke law professors who attempted to make intellectual property law accessible to the general public by writing a comic book.
Then the public themselves have a key role to play in stimulating demand for information on effectiveness. People expect the drugs they receive will have been tested, but do people know that the requirements for testing and evaluating can be lower in other areas? For instance, out of 70 programmes implemented by Department for Education, only two or three had been robustly evaluated. This means a high proportion are potentially ineffective. Are people aware of the differences in research and evaluation across the public services they receive? The public are a key ally in helping drive demand for evidence of effectiveness. If we are to make evidence harder to ignore then the voice of users will be crucial. This is something we’ll return to on day 7.
We recognise that in some fields there is a need for more evidence. But just as often the priority may be to stimulate more demand for what is available. If we are to ensure that the most effective programmes and policies are being used across our public services, we need to ensure that evidence is both easier to understand, and decision-makers find it much harder to ignore.