SOAPBOX: Tackling use of selective evidence by governments – free seminar on 15 June #A4UEevents

Peter O’Neill is the Northern Ireland Manager at the Alliance for Useful Evidence. He also directs the Imagine Belfast Festival of Ideas & Politics and has an extensive track record of research and policy work in the public and third sectors. Follow him on twitter @p_oneil.

When the dust settles on the recent election, attention will turn to how the government and parliamentarians will use their new mandate to implement their manifesto promises. Consideration should also be given to the effectiveness of such policy-making in this new dispensation.

In this volatile world, our political masters face a number of challenges not least the forthcoming Brexit negotiations, the need to reform social care and how to confront the increasing security threat within public expenditure restrictions.

These enormous policy pressures will also stretch the already limited time and resources of the civil service and the ability of the research community to contribute.

In the launch of a recent report on evidence and policy-making, Dr Sarah Main (Campaign for Science and Engineering executive director) has referred to politicians highlighting selective evidence in support of their preferred policies as well as civil servants being pressurised to provide evidence to advance ministerial preference.

It is therefore vital that government is able to properly synthesise and use research evidence in order to ensure policy-making is effective and fully considered by the four UK jurisdictions.

Demands for the better use of useful evidence by government are not new. However, they have become more urgent in order to ensure that scarce public funds are deployed in smart and cost–effective ways.

After the election, how can government make the best use of evidence?

The Alliance for Useful Evidence will examine these challenges in a seminar taking place at 2pm on 15 June in UU Belfast (free registration) on the role of evidence in public policy-making and how politicians and civil servants can improve its usefulness in Northern Ireland.

Speakers include Siobhan Carey, chief executive and registrar general at Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, and former permanent secretaries Aideen McGinley OBE and Will Haire CB.

We want to explore ways of developing capacity in the Northern Irish policy ecosystem and the potential role for a local What Works Centre (WWC).

Unlike Scotland and Wales, no such centre exists in Northern Ireland to improve the use of evidence in making better decisions on public services. We have argued that the development of a WWC in Northern Ireland, perhaps modelled on the Public Policy Institute for Wales, could provide a significant means of support to local policy makers by providing authoritative and independent advice.


The What Works initiative is based on the principle that good decision-making should be informed by the best available evidence on what works and what fails. It is argued by government that the What Works Centres are fundamentally different from standard research centres in that they aim to directly support policy makers, commissioners and local practitioners by providing reliable, accessible reviews which consider the likely impact of policy initiatives.

Although strictly speaking What Works Scotland and the Public Policy Institute for Wales are ‘associate members’ of the network, all of the centres are funded by a combination of state and non-government sources including the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Big Lottery Fund.

The What Works National Adviser, Dr David Halpern, and a team in the Cabinet Office support the network. In addition to working with the WWCs, this initiative aims to support evidence-based decision making across the UK government by sharing findings from the What Works Centres, and supporting a civil service with the skills, capability and commitment to use evidence effectively – but it is difficult to see how this can have full UK coverage without the involvement of a Northern Ireland centre.

What could work in Northern Ireland?

Given the relative absence of think tanks and independent research centres in Northern Ireland, I would contend that the establishment of a local WWC in partnership with Higher Education institutions and other stakeholders could be of real benefit to policy makers.

Key figures in the Executive, NISRA, the Cabinet Office, academia and funders such as ESRC and the Big Lottery Fund could be involved in scoping out this proposal and taking forward this discussion.

Aside from funding, the seminar is also a great opportunity to explore how to marry closeness to government with the need to maintain independence, in order to avoid charges of biasing the evidence to political needs.

If the will exists I have no doubt that an NI What Works Centre could improve local decision-making and plug us into wider UK evidence networks.

Register online to attend the free seminar.

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