Articles Learning from the What Works Network

Learning from the What Works Network

Pippa Coutts (Alliance for Useful Evidence Research and Policy Manager) and Edward Orlik (What Works Team in the Cabinet Office) reflect on the What Works Network’s learning around what makes an evidence centre successful.

The What Works Network is all about supporting practitioners, commissioners and decision-makers to access the best evidence on what works in their area: whether it is about approaches to raising student attainment, or what home adaptations work best for preventing falls among older people. What Works Centres are building the evidence base across social policy and getting it into practice at all levels.

Mobilising knowledge to improve public-sector decision-making is part of a growing movement. David Halpern, the Government’s What Works National Adviser, has reported that ministers in Westminster are increasingly looking to What Works centres for advice. Meanwhile, the international community is turning towards the UK What Works Network as an example of how evidence should be used to improve services and outcomes for citizens.

Last week, the Alliance and the Cabinet Office hosted an open day for existing What Works Centres and organisations interested in setting up a centre, to share good practice and learn from each other

Here are some of the top tips that emerged.

Make the evidence useful

Define your target audience and respond to their needs. Ask yourself where you can have the biggest impact. Centres with limited resources have focussed on the user-groups that can most effectively use evidence, and tailored their products and communications accordingly. Centres are utilising user research to understand and respond to the needs of their target users, and to make their products easier to find and more appealing to use.

For example, What Works Wellbeing has identified Local Authorities as powerful stakeholders, and provided them with a set of measures and indicators to understand and measure wellbeing in their area.

They also are finding that it’s important to safeguard their credibility through independence and being transparent – not just making recommendations, but explaining the strength of the evidence behind the recommendation too..

Support users to engage with evidence

The Alliance knows that just publishing findings and toolkits doesn’t mean research will actually be used. We need to support people to have the motivation, capacity and skills to engage with evidence Emerging findings from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF)’s work in this area corroborates this, indicating What Works Centres need to be extremely proactive to get users to engage properly with evidence.

The achieve this, the College of Policing (CoP) has created a network of evidence champions and the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth (LEG) are providing bespoke evaluation support to Local Authorities wanting to test new approaches to find out what works to improve employment and productivity in their cities and regions.  

Testing and Learning

It’s important that as bodies producing and mobilising knowledge you hold yourself to the same standards as the programmes you review. In other words, measure your own impact, and then work to improve it.

It isn’t easy, but some Centres have made headway. The EEF is running its “Literacy Octopus” trial to understand how effective its mobilisation methods are, and the CoP has published an independent evaluation from Birkbeck about its impact on evidence-use among the police.


A final call from the open day was for greater collaboration between institutions.

Developing joint projects could allow for more efficient working and provide better support to citizens. For example, the Early Intervention Foundation has worked with CoP and the Home Office to embed learning through an ‘Early Intervention Academy’ for police leaders.

Alongside this, shared learning about best-practice will help other institutions improve their ways of working, and ultimately transform the use of evidence across multiple professions and sectors.

The Alliance for Useful Evidence and Cabinet Office hosted a What Works Network Open Day on October 24, 2017, and the blog is based on the event’s discussions.