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September 14, 2021

Rob Anderson

Common barriers to innovative and experimental policymaking in Local Authorities

The government has pledged to end rough sleeping by 2024. For the 17 Local Authorities (LAs) participating in the What Works Community, this represents an exciting challenge. But taking bold new steps to end homelessness, especially in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, demands new thinking and new ideas instead of the same old policies. 

Since the start of 2021, the What Works Community programme has been helping a select group of LAs take these steps by developing their evidence and data skills in partnership with expert leaders in the field. Participants have worked with IDEO, the Behavioural Insights Team and Johns Hopkins University, amongst others, to develop new interventions to tackle homelessness challenges specific to their local area. 

Implementing new ways of thinking  can be difficult in any organisation, particularly those which are overstretched. As we’ve gotten to know our What Works Community teams better, we’ve discovered three common barriers to experimentation within LA’s: an overreliance on gut feelings, a lack of independent validation and fear of failure. All of our teams had experienced these issues to some degree, but with the help of the WWC programme they learned to overcome them. 


An overreliance on gut feelings 

“Work is not always built on data, there can often be a lot of assumptions involved.”

Our teams found that new ideas are difficult to produce and execute within LAs due to an overreliance on ‘gut feelings’ i.e. assumptions about what policies and interventions will work. Many encountered strong personal biases about what works and doesn't work among peers and leadership which can be difficult to challenge. 

Rather than helping deliver better services, relying on gut feelings privileges the personal perspective of policymakers and prevents lived experiences and evidence being at the heart of policy. Likewise it can prevent LAs from reacting to new policy developments in the field because they already believe they have an answer to a problem.

To uproot old ways of doing things there needs to be a willingness to challenge assumptions about what works. At CHI, we believe in creating cultures that challenge ‘received wisdom’ in favour of placing evidence and experience at the heart of all policy and interventions. 

How the WWC can help 

“[After a team member was involved in a session] they saw an opportunity for them to widen the scope of our services and offer more support. They did that and worked with families and people who didn’t have a tenancy. We are now encouraging experimentation and it’s being discussed openly.”

The WWC broadens horizons and encourages new methods of working by guiding LAs through a suite of options for experimentation in policy and thinking. No assumption goes unchallenged and we embed simple, tangible data practices into the workflow of LA teams whilst also ensuring that solutions work for the specific local context of authorities. 


A lack of independent assessment (and championing) of good practice

Another regular topic of discussion among our participants was the difficulty they experience in pursuing new ideas due to a lack of assessment or validation by independent bodies or authorities within the council itself. Interventions are not regularly reviewed and assessed. Many felt there was a lack of confidence around experimenting with new ways of working because successful new interventions are not widely championed or rolled out to other LAs. 


How the WWC can help 

“Previously people wouldn’t suggest new ideas but having independent validation has really helped.”

Participating LAs work with our Evidence and Data team as well as external experts to bring forward new ways of working and to test policy interventions. We do this to support LAs and offer independent validation. As a data-driven organisation, we support LAs to adopt an experimental mindset and validate their new or untested ideas and interventions. Participants have benefited from our validation of their new methods and policies; providing the spark for new ideas and showing the impact they can have when properly implemented.


Fear of Failure 

“The way the funding structure works for bids doesn’t allow for failure to be an option. You have to say it will work.” 

The final common theme was that the funding criteria for new interventions demands specific measurable outcomes. This can mean that leadership requires proven results to enact any policy, yet some of the newest developments in the homelessness space lack a strong evidence base.

Only one participant we spoke to described having a leadership team that was open to new policies. This can sometimes make it difficult to persuade leadership teams to support new policies, with funding requirements restricting the amount of experimentation that occurs. This shows that there are a number of ways in which expectations and a fear of failure are driving authorities away from new ideas. 


How the WWC can help 

By providing in-depth access to expert partners we give LA staff the best possible introduction to new ways of working. Whilst it is important to showcase examples of how new policies could be implemented, it is equally valuable for us to build confidence among LA staff so that they feel comfortable pushing for more experimental and innovative approaches from their leadership. We work with them at every stage of the process to ensure this is the case. 

We also work closely with leadership, making sure that the right expectations are set and that the project teams we work with are given the best conditions to succeed under. 

We are always looking to talk to LAs who are keen to use evidence and insight to be more impactful. If you work within an LA and recognise some of the barriers we’ve discussed here, drop us a line for more information about what we can do for you at hello@homelessnessimpact.org.


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