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October 15, 2018

Glyn Halksworth

Better use of evidence in policy-making: a local authority perspective

When colleagues at the Centre for Homelessness Impact asked me if I would speak at their recent event about 'What counts as reliable evidence in homelessness?', despite a busy schedule I had no hesitation in agreeing.

The event came hot on the heels of recent discussions about the impact of a large concentration of rough sleeping in our town centre on things like street scene, the local shopping offer, tourism and so on. And of course the temptation in these discussions is overwhelmingly to focus on symptoms and leap straight into solution mode. This is entirely understandable with the many different perspectives on this each demanding some kind of action, a solution to make things change for the better. Quickly.

The problem is, we don’t always understand the problem itself and we risk making the wrong choices about what we should do.

In some key meetings there has been some scepticism of things like drug treatment, supported housing and outreach work to help rough sleepers. Touchy feely stuff is all well and good but now we need to move people on, right? Emotions are high on this topic at present and a there is a need to be seen to be taking action, and get some quick wins under public service belts. Decision makers and key influencers want a tougher stance.

As is often the case with complex problems there were actions agreed which will be put in place without us having a strong grasp of whether they are likely to be effective. Yes we might, if we have time in our busy world, do something we call an evaluation in order to assess whether we made the right policy choices and prove we do know what we are doing. But what if they don’t work?

We need to take stock of what’s around us. The best footballers in the world always seem to have time on the ball, to see space, identify opportunities and calculate what will work. They are students of the beautiful game. Complex problems need Messi solutions!

Our jobs are hard and to do them well we need training to help us use the resources and to understand where the goal is, and the route most likely to be effective in hitting the target. In thinking about the vital role that CHI is playing it struck me that there are some fundamental problems and that these are as much about our use of what evidence there is, as it is about a paucity of evidence per se.

Rather crudely (for you see, it isn’t me that is the academic…) I’ve suggested the following as 7 things to be aware of (and ask the Centre for help with):

1. There is disputed ground over what constitutes evidence – different people will want different things and prioritise different forms of evidence – for example, the ‘cost-benefit analysis’ may be a favourite for some and more closely inform policy that lots of better research and more robust findings, but the one we use may be far more crudely constructed using extrapolated and incomplete data than the research we de- select.;

2. In local government there’s also an ‘unignorable’ truth that we must face here: many policy makers are not really interested in your evidence any way! The very difficult job of my elected council colleagues means they receive many complaints about things happening in our local community and they want to respond to these by enacting highly visible, quick wins. Quick wins, as we know, don’t necessarily ‘do-the-do’ and deliver sustainable change and are infrequently based on strong evidence about ‘what works’;

3. Where there is evidence it doesn’t mean it will help us: there is a fundamental problem insofar as we are not all trained in using evidence and for some of us trying to get our heads round scientific papers – particularly quantitative ones - can make us feel like we are once again confused 11 year olds in a maths lesson grappling with trigonometry for the first time. It’s not just me, is it?! Do we have the skill to detect good from poor? Can we separate sketchy from reliable? Do we know how to apply what we read?;

4. Evidence is very often not presented as well as it could be. Every one of us is busy and whilst there are those of us who love nothing more than making ourselves comfortable at our desks with a fresh mug of coffee and an unthumbed copy of the latest peer-reviewed journal, this won’t work for many of us. There’s a professor of sociology who spent some time on secondment at the Home Office and was repeatedly encouraged to develop ‘killer charts’ which were seen to be worth ten pages in words. This is perhaps a step too far but I totally get where that came from. We need to be able to grasp things; they need to impact and grab us;

5. Abstract evidence isn’t always that useful either – particularly if we aren’t highly skilled in analysis and application; it must be relatable and relevant; it absolutely must tell a story that the audience can imagine playing out in their world and the stuff they are tackling;

6. Evidence also needs to be available at the right time, to tell its story when I need it to – ideally before the policy is enacted, the service is commissioned or whatever;

7. And finally, even when we think we understand the evidence we don’t apply it very well or choose to ignore much of it. How often have you heard people talk about using a technique or approach when in actual fact they are barely scratching the surface of it? I truly believe there are far more services claiming to ‘do’ housing first, or provide motivational interviewing or offer a psychologically informed environment than is actually the case. Even where people may think there is an evidence base, they have failed to understand the basis of the research anyway. There’s a bad habit here about trying to do things on the cheap.

I guess if I had a point 8 it would be the fact that we’re not great at adding further to either our capacity to use evidence or to add to the evidence base. This may be a simple case of not being very good at commissioning research or evaluation, probably because we aren’t great at framing the questions in the first instance, at understanding the problem we are concerned with. Of course I can only talk about my own experience in 25 years of local government, the NHS and the 3rd sector, but I dare say there are people for whom this is familiar.

So you see the Centre for Homelessness Impact have got their work cut out educating us about evidence, aiding translation and understanding and simplifying the task of making better choices about the use of scarce public resources to try and be more effective in the lives of many vulnerable citizens of our country. 

On the 1st October the Centre came to Southend to start to help us on our journey to change; we simply can’t ignore this any longer….

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