In this guest blog, Simon Burall, Director of Involve, explores the need for the What Works centres to strike a balance between generating more hard evidence which is better communicated to frontline practitioners, and for developing the role of public participation within the creation, understanding and communication of the evidence process.
The network of What Works centres is trying to address a real and important gap in the way public services absorb, learn from and adapt practice in response to emerging evidence about more effective ways to deliver public services. This gap, between what the evidence says is effective and day-to-day practice, is having real effects on real lives.
We need more hard evidence, better digested and better communicated to frontline staff with more skills to understand it, and more agency to act on it. However, there is a real risk that this drive for more evidence within the system will lead to a closing down of the public debate about the balances that need to be made as services are delivered in practice. While the reform of public services must involve more experts and expertise, it must not become solely expert led.
A hypothetical example: an RCT provides clear evidence that teaching reading in a different way leads to significant improvements at the school level. However, as it is rolled out more generally similar improvements aren’t seen. Further study, years later, discovers that parents don’t understand the new way of teaching and are undermining what teachers are doing in schools. In addition, the new scheme requires more resources to be provided to certain groups of children. This runs counter to public notions of equality and fairness which leads to parents putting pressure on schools to allocate teaching resources in ways they feel are ‘fairer’.
Public engagement as part of the initial RCT may well have discovered these issues and helped inform policy makers about ways in which they would need to adapt the recommendations about changing practice in order for the evidence to be acted on effectively. The research questions at the heart of the RCT itself will have been based on a set of assumptions about the education system, its purpose and how success might be measured. Public dialogues run by Sciencewise demonstrate that involving the public early can lead to a deeper understanding about how the public views issues such as what success in education looks like which can significantly improve research programmes. Involving the public at early stages of research about public services will help experts to make more informed decisions about ways to explore making the more effective.
“The assumption behind ‘evidence-based policy’ is that there are ‘hard facts’ and ‘soft values’[…]. Policy remains filled with politics, values and difficult choices. In such situations, ‘evidence-based’ can provide a robust, decision-making process but it can also become a shield against criticism, shutting off important perspectives and ultimately damaging credibility.”
It will be important that the What Works Centres think through what role the voices of citizens and various ‘non-expert’ stakeholders might have in generating, understanding, communicating and acting on new evidence about how to deliver more effective public services. They are the greatest allies of those trying to deliver more effective services, but they can also be one of the sources of greatest inertia in the system.
 Burall, Hughes and Stilgoe (forthcoming), Experts, publics and open policy-making: Opening the windows and doors of Whitehall, Sciencewise
The views are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence.