Phone-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
experts gathered to hear QUB’s Prof Sally Shortall and A4UE’s Jonathan Breckon share their wonks 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. opinion
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.
Canny 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.”
— Alan in Belfast (@alaninbelfast) November 6, 2015
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.)
A 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.
Civil 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.
It 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.
I’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!
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.