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Discussing personas as a way of thinking about the evidence base

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In early 2019, the What Works Network came together to use our collected expertise to support evidence-based policymaking in disadvantaged places. The What Works Network has been helped in this project by Wakefield and Grimsby, two places in the UK facing these challenges. We organised two-day workshops with both places to discuss how our evidence base and knowledge offered insights to help address local policy priorities.

During our sessions in Wakefield, we had great participation from across the council and its partner agencies. Rather than focussing exclusively on policy areas such as employment training as we had done in Grimsby, we used a set of ‘personas’ compiled by Wakefield to reflect different types of residents they work with.

A technique borrowed from marketing, using personas helps professionals from a range of disciplines focus on their ‘customer’ and their needs beyond their own silos.

Each persona corresponded to a broad type of area resident with complex needs. For example:

  • A young person who left school with no GCSEs, has never been employed, and has been involved in petty crime
  • A woman with mental health problems suffering from social isolation, previously a victim of domestic violence
  • A single mother living in public housing, requiring childcare and struggling with debt
  • An older man who was made redundant from factory work, who smokes and has heart problems

Discussing services from a persona approach allowed us to gain more insight into how different residents interact with council and other public and third sector services and how different sets of characteristics may make them particularly vulnerable or resistant to support.

A persona approach can also help with prioritisation. A young person may come to the attention of the public sector when they have a run in with the police, but their long term unemployment may be a more important problem to tackle in terms of improving their life chances.

Overall, we found the personas a helpful way of structuring our discussions. We’d be interested to hear from others who have tried using this approach and for any pointers to literature that assesses their effectiveness as a way of talking about the evidence.

[PS: We’ll be launching our report on improving the use of evidence in policy design in disadvantaged places in the middle of October. Watch out for more details].