The early days of devolution failed to deliver on their promise of ‘national laboratories’, where we could test different approaches to public services reform. Now, argues Professor Steve Martin, times have changed and the newly established Public Policy Institute for Wales is ready to support the use of evidence in public policy.
Longer waiting times; higher mortality rates; poorer PISA scores. David Cameron has repeatedly used PMQs to batter Welsh Labour’s record on public services. This war of words focuses on the Welsh Government’s alleged mishandling of the health service has obvious attractions for the Conservatives in the run up to a General Election. But is there more to it than political point scoring? In particular, what does it tell us about our current understanding of what works, where and why?
What happened to the ‘national laboratories’?
In the early days of devolution, there was much talk about ‘natural laboratories’ where we could test different approaches to public services reform. In practice there have been few systematic comparative analyses and very little attempt at cross-jurisdictional learning.
Ten years ago, Whitehall seemed to write Wales off, as if nothing good could come of the policies being pursued on the far side of Offa’s Dyke. And the feeling seemed to be mutual. Welsh policy makers delighted in the ‘clear red water’ which they claimed was opening up between Cardiff and London. As a well-placed source once told me, ‘We’d rather take lessons from Venezuela than England’.
But ten years on, there are signs that a more secure and more mature Welsh polity is becoming more receptive to evidence about what works from other parts of the UK.
Linking Wales with the What Works network
Last year the Welsh Government created the Public Policy Institute for Wales to provide it with authoritative independent analysis and advice which helps to improve policies and public service delivery. Like the ‘What Works’ Centres in England, the Public Policy Institute for Wales receives funding from the Government and the Economic and Social Research Council. Independent of but closely engaged with government, it works directly with Ministers, advising them on the evidence they need and commissioning experts to provide it for them. The Institute also ensures that Wales is linked into the ‘What Works’ network and is leading a programme of research to improve our understanding of what works in tackling poverty, a key priority for the Welsh Government.
Groupthink vs innovation
In theory, a close knit Welsh policy community should find it easy to recognise and roll out ‘good practice’. But in practice relationships can become too cosy. Groupthink may set in, frustrating attempts to promote public service innovation. So establishing the PPIW could mark an important breakthrough, opening Wales up to fresh thinking and new ideas.
Collaborating on evidence
Policy makers in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales still have a great deal in common. They operate within similar legal frameworks and administrative traditions, and they face the same financial and demand pressures driven by demographic change, technological advances, and rising public expectations. That’s why it’s important for them to engage with evidence from right across the UK. And it’s the reason the Public Policy Institute for Wales looks forward to working with the Alliance for Useful Evidence, the ‘What Works’ network and others to facilitate sharing of evidence – from across the UK and beyond – which builds a better understanding of how to improve policy and practice at a time of unprecedented challenge and change for public services.
For further information about the Public Policy Institute for Wales see: www.ppiw.org.uk
You can tweet them at @PPIfW.
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.