‘How Can Government Make the Best Use of Evidence?’ was the latest in a series run by the Alliance for Useful Evidence which has been working in Northern Ireland for two and a half years. Peter O’Neill introduced the session and gave some context to A4UE’s purpose. He suggested that evidence, politics and delivery all need to intersect if civil servants are to be successful in rolling out a policy.
Evidence to back up coherent policymaking can be distilled from many sources: the history of a sector; lessons learned from previous policies as well as evaluations and academic research; parallel initiatives in other places; internal and external expertise; the legal and legislative context; as well as what can be learned from accountability processes, the media and interested parties.
Some politicians instinctively want to be well informed; others take an opposite view. In April 2011 former Prime Minister David Cameron said that “politics shouldn’t be some mind-bending exercise: it’s about what you feel in your gut”.
While there are countless research tools available – and some go through their own cycles of trendy adoption before being displaced – the public mood today is often to distrust experts, creating a challenge for researchers to effectively use and promote research.
Peter was honest about experts sometimes getting it wrong: Dr Spock’s advice ignored other contradictory research findings and led to thousands of cot deaths. And sometimes politicians use less-than-trustworthy single sources of evidence like Wikipedia.
There’s sometimes a challenge for civil servants and advisors to distil everything down to a two page briefing. Independent What Works Centres across the UK – but still not set up in Northern Ireland [Ed: though it is a policy that can be found in DUP’s 2016 manifesto] – offer ‘rapid evidence assessments’ to help wade through the copious amounts of research and highlight high quality evidence to inform decision-makers. NESTA have published an Evidence Practice Guide as well as a clickable/searchable ‘three sausage diagram’ of the UK Evidence Ecosystem for Social Policy.
Participants were stimulated with a vibrant mix of speakers from across organisations in Northern Ireland, able to offer observations and insights on the interface between analysts, academia, and policy. Siobhan Carey, Chief executive and registrar general of the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) asked: Why is it important that government make the ‘right’ use of evidence?”
I think everyone agrees that we want government to make the best decisions and we want them to make good choices. We recognise that sometimes those decisions and choices will be ideologically based. But the general expectation is that those choices and decisions will be made on the best available evidence…without data you are just another person with an opinion…
Former Permanent Secretary at the Department for Employment and Learning Northern Ireland, Aideen McGinley summed up her observations by arguing that there is a real hunger for good evidence inside government, whilst outside government, people want evidence to be genuine and reflect the lives they live. Former Permanent Secretary of the Department of Social Development, Will Haire argued that we needed to shift the relationship between state and society saying:
We have to change the dynamics and the demand that we can do things … and we have to create a politics that is about people’s needs. Understandably we have constitutional obsessions and issues [but once those are addressed] we have to deal with need.
Listening to the two former permanent secretaries, and in particular to Will Haire, I began to understand why there is a lot of work to be done within and without government departments to embed the value of data and the evidence it shows. Compelling stories seem to trump evidence. They’re fast to understand, quick to retell, and make an emotional impact.
Politicians – who in the NI Assembly situation nearly all seem to have the potential to become Executive ministers – need to be (re)trained to be inspired by compelling stories but to doggedly pursue evidence to back up the projects that they’re being shown.
It’s not a matter of ignoring gut instinct or common sense. There seems to be a gap in quantifying the size of need and the size of the best investment to fill it, and designing the evaluation up front. (The fixed term numeracy and literacy intervention by OFMdFM – and championed by Emma Little Pengelly as special advisor – came to an end and despite evidence from schools that pointed to its success the project seemed not be renewed due to the need to pause to evaluate.)
An independent What Works Centre for Northern Ireland, aimed directly at supporting policy makers could ease the burden of finding relevant evidence and make up for the lack of local think tanks pumping out timely reports.
The original and full blog was published on Sluggero’toole
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.