June 3, 2019

We’ve joined the What Works Network, so what does that mean?

Dr Lígia Teixeira

Today we celebrate joining the What Works Network, which is dedicated to embedding robust evidence at the heart of policy-making and service delivery. We couldn’t be happier.  

It’s been a journey. A journey that started when we asked ourselves a simple question: ‘How much progress have we made in the last 50, when homelessness first made it to the national consciousness?’ There was a lot to be proud of. But despite the fact that the homelessness safety net in the UK is strong by international standards, despite all the great work of many campaigners, researchers and practitioners, and despite significant investments in tackling homelessness, too many people remained without a home.

It was a pivotal moment. A huge amount of commitment and effort had only taken us so far. We looked far and wide for inspiration and we found it in the What Works Network. The Network launched six years ago to embed robust evidence at the heart of policy-making and service delivery.

Thanks to its efforts, the empiricism that Archie Cochrane fought for so hard in medicine, and that we now take for granted, is now spreading to other areas of professional practice. Education is perhaps the best example. Within the space of a few years, more than 10,000 studies have been carried out, and more than a hundred large-scale RCTs have been conducted, involving almost a million children. As a result, debates that were once dominated by dogma are now driven by evidence.  

But the What Works Centres don’t just produce evidence and expect people to magically understand and use it. This is reflected in the set of principles that underpin their ways of working:

For me something even more fundamental is at the heart of the What Works movement, and the institutions and activities that make up the Network: humility. Policymakers and practitioners are often far too ready to conclude that an existing practice is effective – that they already know ‘what works’. But there might be a better way to help this patient to heal, this child to learn, or this service to innovate. In this sense, the first step to more effective policy and practice is humility.

Looking back, it was this that inspired us most of all, and made us ask ourselves ‘What if we applied the same rigour and meticulous testing to the homelessness issue?’ In homelessness people aren’t aware of the best ways to help end homelessness for good, and so miss opportunities to make a tremendous difference. Our new centre, a What Works Centre on homelessness, was created to help homelessness catch up. To ensure that when we’re trying to help people we do so as effective as possible and that we do no harm. So we know that we’re working towards ending – as opposed to managing – homelessness.

We are forever grateful for what we learned from the other Centres so far and excited about what the future holds. We see this as an opportunity to help drive prevention upstream, magnifying our efforts and hopefully also those of others. I particularly wish to thank our founders Crisis and GHN as well as our funder; the Ministers in the Scottish Government, MHCLG, and the Welsh Government who have backed us; and the What Works National Adviser Dr David Halpern and the What Works Team in the Cabinet Office for all their leadership and support. And perhaps most importantly of all, the passionate people working in and around homelessness who are changing how they learn and what they do, already making this agenda their own.

When I think about the shift to evidence-led policy and practice, it’s a massive shift. To break the cycle of homelessness is huge. But when I question that I think about what’s possible. And I think about what’s happened in other fields within just a few years. Joining the What Works Network will help accelerate this transition so that it starts to take hold. If ever there is a time in which we can redesign the system so we can have a society where everyone has a home in which to live and thrive, it’s now.  

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