Articles 6. Evidence and well-being: why we need to listen to local politicians

6. Evidence and well-being: why we need to listen to local politicians

The usual Whitehall default towards centralisation should be avoided so that we include more local voices including politicians – in any What Works Centre for Well-being because local relationships are deeper and more long term, there is an opportunity to develop more radical solutions to improving well-being that the sound bite world of Westminster struggles to achieve, argues Professor Mark Gamsu.

Well-being and policy making: ingrained behaviours derailing change?

The recent Alliance for Useful Evidence symposium on well-being got me thinking about our approach to “evidence based policy making” in the UK. From discussions at the event I came away thinking that despite our modernising ambitions our approach to evidence based policy making and well-being quickly default to ingrained behaviours. Behaviours that risk reinforcing existing approaches rather than promoting change.

One of the issues for me was the focus of activity, it felt like there was an emphasis on influencing national policy makers – civil servants and governments. I think that in this country we do tend to default to this – as the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee noted “England is the most centralised country in the Union. Strong control by the central state means our localities underachieve on their massive potential”

Don’t forget (local) government!

I believe that we need to take a balanced approach. Well-being has a strong local dimension – which is increasingly recognised by local authorities who are using local commissions to consider questions such as “How can we make this place fairer?” or “What can we do to reduce poverty and increase prosperity?” (York, Wakefield, Liverpool, Sheffield, Islington and others have all run these). In this context evidence that has been considered includes peer reviewed evidence, but also the opinions and experiences of local decision makers and stakeholders.

This type of public appreciative enquiry can lead to a shared understanding of local challenges and to a local commitment to more upstream actions (for example living wage agreements, investment in welfare rights) than we might otherwise have seen if more traditional approaches to evidence and priority setting had been used.

Frankly, I think that because local relationships are deeper and more long term there is an opportunity to develop more radical solutions to improving well-being that the sound bite world of Westminster struggles to achieve. We would be missing a trick if we made the assumption that the main player here is national government.

It is local government that is developing new more inclusive approaches to policy making that provide us with the some of the best ammunition to influence the national policy agenda.

Politicians aren’t the problem, definitions are

I was surprised at the assumption by a number of people at the event that the real blockers to taking an evidence based approach to policy making are politicians.

There was almost a view that somehow the world would be a much better place if the scientists and technocrats could be given a freer rein! This leads to an unhelpful cynicism about the role of politicians many of whom (particularly at a local level) are doing their best to improve their communities. This view also dis-empowers those who are working to help politicians make good decisions for their populations.

We need to be more honest with ourselves here, I think that politicians – particularly local ones are probably the best interpreters of evidence that we have. They have to make judgments not just about RCT and Peer Review evidence but also about:

•     what the public (with all their different agendas) tells them

•     balancing competing demands from different stakeholders

•     what might have traction in a particular geography

•     what can be afforded

•     what is really statutory

The problem is one of dissonance – too often our definition of evidence is not the same as that of politicians and we therefore fail to provide them with the assistance to interpret evidence on their terms.

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Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. 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.