Evidence-based policy is now official government policy. So will they actually follow the evidence?

by Stephen Tall on March 4, 2013

whitehall imageAs of today, I officially work for a ‘What Works’ organisation – the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) – part of the ‘What Works Network’ Danny Alexander and Oliver Letwin are launching today. Here’s the Financial Times report:

A drive to link public spending to robust evidence of which policies deliver results will be launched on Monday as the government seeks to target scarce resources in an era of austerity. … The What Works Network, as it has been dubbed, takes as its template two existing centres of excellence – the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, which scrutinises the effectiveness of drugs, and the Educational Endowment Foundation, which performs the same function for initiatives to raise the attainment of disadvantaged children. The new independent institutions being established will produce and disseminate research in four areas: tackling crime; promoting active and independent ageing; effective early intervention; and fostering local economic growth.

The use of evidence-based policy to underpin our values is something I’ve written about before – A little bit about my job. A whole lot more about the importance of evidence-based policy and RCTs:

Evidence-based policy is not about experts telling professionals, whether in teaching or anything else, what they must do. It is about arming them with the knowledge they need to be evidence-literate. And that evidence-literacy is crucial in working out what will work best in a particular context — because evidence can only tell us that something has worked there, not that it will work here.

Evidence is not a replacement for democratic accountability — unless your concept of democracy is implementing policy and ignoring its impact. It is about giving decision-makers — whether they’re professionals or politicians — the information they need to make informed choices, and how best to put their values into action.

I also wrote a follow-up post here: Ben Goldacre’s Bad Evidence should be Good News for liberals.

What I hadn’t appreciated at the time – my bad – was that RCTs (Randomised Control Trials) literally are a liberal idea, based on John Stuart Mill’s ‘method of difference’ through which the observed difference between two groups can be measured to identify the ‘active ingredient’ which works.

So, naturally, I think it’s great that the Coalition is signing up to the liberal principle of evidence-based policy. What will be interesting is to see if the Government now lives that principle.

In education, it was Michael Gove’s decision to entrust The Sutton Trust, together with Impetus Trust, £125m to set up the grant-making charity I work for, the EEF. Yet in justice, we’ve seen Chris Grayling cancel pilot studies designed to find out what works in his rush to announce stuff he believes will work.

If the ‘What Works Network’ can curb the politician’s natural hyper-instinct for glitzy-and-completely-untested policies they’ll be doing a valuable service. But I might wait to see a bit more evidence that it’ll happen…

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