Alliance for Useful Evidence – do NI politicians & government have good access to evidence when making policy? #A4UE

Alliance for Useful Evidence A4UEPhone-in programmes and newspaper front pages can tend to debate issues based on individual stories – often shocking edge-case outliers – rather than rather than taking a wide look at the available evidence.

Do the departments in the Northern Ireland Executive – or indeed the eleven local councils – construct policies that are backed by a proper evidence base? Think tanks are scarce in Northern Ireland.

On Friday afternoon, a group of academics, researchers, commissioners and social policy wonks experts gathered to hear QUB’s Prof Sally Shortall and A4UE’s Jonathan Breckon share their opinion evidence about the local deficit, to share best practice and examples of evidence being used well, and to discuss potential improvements to the local situation.

Prof Sally Shortall (QUB) opened the session by sharing some of her insight from a year spend working on rural policies as a fellow in DARD which heightened her awareness of the issues and reinforced the need to provide research in a way that’s useful to community groups, policy makers and politicians. She worked with NI Assembly to set up the Knowledge Exchange Seminar Series. This kind of initiative linking the Assembly with academics seeks to demystify local political institutions and help link research to emerging policy areas.

Sally ShortallCanny youngsters may start their demands of parents with “research has shown …” but it doesn’t necessarily add credibility to their request. Evidence-based policy making was championed by Tony Blair over his two terms in office, yet the former Prime Minister has recently apologised for talking a major military decision with intelligence (evidence) that “was wrong”.

Evidence of the evils of teenage drinking need to be contrasted with evidence that shows sensible drinking by underage teens within their peer group can lead to sustained and responsible patterns of alcohol consumption.

“Sometimes evidence isn’t what we want to hear.”

Shortall used a couple of sections of dialogue from Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible to highlight some of the problems around evidence.

Some policies are palatable to politicians and departments – for example, tackling poverty in rural communities – even though there may be little evidence to support the gap. There is no evidence that an increased police presence reduces crime (unless it is targeted at specific crime hotspots), but visibility of police officers does boost public confidence. The Queen’s University academic also reminded those gathered that evidence changes over time: letting babies sleep on their back or their front.

Jonathan Breckon heads The Alliance For Useful Evidence, connecting evidence producers with evidence consumers. He reminded delegates that we live in a real world where politics, values, beliefs and ideologies can trump evidence. (As someone commented, NI wouldn’t have gas pipeline if Reg Empey hadn’t made it policy … most would now say it was a good outcome, but not one that evidence said was necessary.)

Jonathan BreckonA lack of evidence, bad evidence, or delayed reaction to new evidence can lead to bad policies, even tragic ones. UCL research suggests that childcare authors like Dr Spock “contributed to the deaths of 10,000 babies in Britain” through their advice to let babies sleep face down in cots.

The What Works initiative believes that “good decision-making should be informed by the best available evidence on what works and what fails”.

Breckon described the What Works Centres as “synthesising all the best available research evidence to see what work , what’s value for money, what’s most effective, in a really understandable way”. The focus is on informing policy makers and practitioners with accessible reviews and when necessary rapid information. (Shortall also suggested that academics needed to become better at producing fast summaries of the impact of their evidence to support political requests.)

With UK Government support, nine independent What Works Centres have been set up across the UK, many sector specific (health and care excellence, crime reduction, early intervention, local economic growth, ageing better, well-being) as well as jurisdictional centres in Scotland and Wales to support devolved institutions and devolved policy-making.

A4UE workshopCivil servants could no longer have the excuse that they didn’t have access to the evidence. The Welsh centre – the Public Policy Institute for Wales – was cited as a very effective example of politicians and policy makers being connected with practitioners, academics & evidence.

Northern Ireland has no What Works Centre, despite the devolution of many policy areas to the local legislature and the relative absence of local think tanks.

The Blunders of our Government bookcoverIt was clear from the discussion that followed the speakers’ introductory remarks that there can sometimes be a dearth of cost implications associated with current policy option research. Anthony King’s book The Blunders of our Governments talks more about the consequences of bad decision making in government. Evidence alone isn’t enough, it must be coupled with cost, value and viability.

It was also suggested that it is dangerous for policy makers to always rely on the same individuals and institutions for evidence. It’s important to seek out and analyse alternative outlooks.

Commissioning research at the start of public policy exploration – while there’s still time – can prevent untested policies being adopted and launched. However, sometimes evidence is required urgently: for example, when a new Culture Arts and Leisure minister arrives in post and decides that tackling poverty and social exclusion is the new focus of her department.

There was a hint that the next NI Executive Programme for Government may be more outcome based, following the model long adopted by the Scottish Government.

detail data squareI’ve posted about the Detail Data initiative before, delivering better outcomes for communities and families and Northern Ireland through the use and analysis of public (open) data.

The Alliance for Useful Evidence is an open network, and any interested person or organisation can join and access the best practice and resources available. Peter O’Neill is the local manager for A4UE and you has been blogging about how NI could plug into wider evidence networks and take advantage of the What Works model used everywhere else in the UK.

Are there local examples of where government has listened to data and evidence and formulated appropriate policy? There are certainly examples of the opposite … Use the comments to let me know!

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  • Robert Smith

    To quote Paul Givan, as chairman of the Stormont justice committee in 2014:

    ”Some of us don’t need evidence.”

    This was addressed directly to a campaigner for the rights and safety of local sex workers. And indeed the subsequent legislation entirely ignored the evidence in favour of a moral crusade.

  • murdockp

    The data is available in abundance but is simply ignored as in most cases it is politically and religiously inconvenient. From prostitution through to drugs policy, and education, business rates, crime prevention, homlessness, immigration, emmigration, healthcare, public services delivery, most data is ignored. If the private sector ignored data and Intelligence in the same way, insolvency would quickly follow.

    Why do politicians and spads ignore data is more the question for me. I put in down to the type of people attracted to politics, the self reighteous , who are at all times right whilst others are wrong. Ever heard a politician without an opinion on a matter?

    In Germany for example the politician has to show competence and experience in the ministerial portfolio which they are tasked. Not so in NI, ” finance anyone, sure we will give arlene a crack at it” I can just see British airways giving an untrained accountant the finance directors role. Or arts ” sure we owe carol a turn for all her loyalty how hard can arts and culture be”

    My own research has concluded that most of our serving Stormont Politicians suffer from the Dunning–Kruger effect which is a cognitive bias wherein relatively unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than is accurate.
    Dunning and Kruger attributed the bias to the inability of the unskilled to recognize their own ineptitude and evaluate their own ability accurately. Their research also suggests that conversely, highly skilled individuals may underestimate their relative competence, mistakingly assuming that tasks that are easy for them also are easy for others.

    Dunning and Kruger have mooted that the effect is the result of internal illusion in the unskilled, and external misperception in the skilled:

    As I watch Stormont plays its self out, day by day, I have often wondered how Ministers of such incompetence that would not be tolerated in the course of employment in both both the private and public sector are able to carry themselves with such authority, confidence and assurance.

    I have concluded that it is because they are simply oblivious to their own ineptitude.

    In conclusion it does not matter what the data says. As Lord morrow’s human trafficking bill demonstrates legislation in NI will be driven by political and religious idology. Facts are to be ignored.

    This is how Iran works. Sad times indeed that we are no longer a social democracy.