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September 4, 2018

Dr  Lígia Teixeira

Making better use of evidence to end rough sleeping in England

This is part 2 in a series. Get all caught up with part 1.

An evidence framework to complement the strategy's forthcoming delivery plan to end rough sleeping in England would help the government ensure their change efforts stay on track and view success through the prism of impact rather than activity or the amount of money spent.

Are people getting out of homelessness permanently? Have their life chances improved?

At the Centre for Homelessness Impact we envision a future in which reliable evidence on homelessness and related issues - e.g. housing, income and health - is created efficiently, as a routine part of government and sector-wide operations, and used to develop and implement effective public policy. Let’s make no mistake about this - a sustainable and permanent end to homelessness requires it.

I believe three steps will be key for moving forward this agenda:

  • attending to bodies of evidence and building the evidence of what works;
  • focusing on improvement;
  • building local capacity for evidence use.

If the strategy is to realise its potential to ensure street homelessness is only ever rare, brief and non-recurrent, it will be important to rely on bodies of research evidence.

As a first step an evidence framework could outline the evidence base behind each activity proposed in the strategy as well as an evaluation plan. We know that ideally policy-makers need to draw on bodies of evidence rather than single studies to make decisions.

This includes studies of what works, but also of what works for whom, under what conditions, and at what cost. Significantly, local areas will need to know whether the intervention is working in their communities, under their conditions, and given their resources.  

Our Evidence Tools highlight how our supply of evidence about What Works, though still too small, is beginning to grow. We know from developments in other social policy fields such as education and policing about the the value of impact evaluations. Putting renewed efforts on building the evidence about What Works should be at the heart of government’s efforts to end street homelessness.

We also know that a potential danger of the What Works agenda is the idea of building and using evidence simply to sift through what works and what doesn’t. The history of evaluations shows that most studies yield mixed or null results. Implementing and scaling interventions in different contexts with a diverse and complex population is notoriously challenging. Interventions work in some places for some people, but not others.

In order to achieve better outcomes at scale we need to find ways to improve practices, programmes and systems. It needs to be a learning endeavour.

To surpass the success of past efforts, we also need to focus greater attention to implementation research.

We need to build and use research evidence not just to identify what works but also to strengthen and improve programmes and systems to improve the lives of street homeless people and better their chances to get ahead.

An evidence framework that supports the strategy’s forthcoming delivery plan could support efforts to build a robust evidence base on key implementation issues, such as how much staffing or training is required, how resources should be allocated, and how to align the new interventions with existing programmes and systems.

As we have been arguing at the Centre, we need to build an infrastructure for building evidence of programme impacts, but we also need to match it with equally robust mechanisms for implementation and continual improvement evidence.

This is not to say that anything goes. When research evidence consistently shows that a policy or programme doesn’t work – or even produces harm – it should be discontinued. Indeed, an evidence framework would need to aim toward improvement while keeping an eye on whether progress is being achieved.

Government knows that to succeed more than top-down compliance will be necessary, but to do so they will need to identify new ways to support local areas and practitioners. An evidence framework could provide a  key way to foster the capacity of local decision makers and practitioners to build and use evidence to improve their systems and outcomes.

While in the past initiatives like the Rough Sleepers Initiative have provided grantees with best practice support, and focused less on assistance to conduct rigorous impact evaluations, helping them apply continuous improvement principles and practices, or build productive collaborations with other local agencies to implement programmes.  

An evidence framework would help build and harness research evidence, so that what is learned in one place need not be reinvented in another and the lessons accumulate, thus accelerating learning.  

Realising the potential of evidence to deliver the goals of the strategy

An evidence framework sounds a bit dry, but it would mark an important change in the way we implement government strategy. It would help confirm what’s working and weed out what isn’t.

Greater investment in experimentation and evaluation would not only help the government meet its goal to end street homelessness in England, but ensure it does so sustainably and permanently.

And while good intentions are, well, good, there must be hard evidence that government initiatives are helping get people out of homelessness permanently. A framework that clearly sets out how evidence will be designed across the delivery plan would be a big step in the right direction.

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