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Exploring the evidence: how our systematic reviews will work

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The Centre’s first big task is to review what we know about the impact of local economic development policies. This means conducting systematic reviews of the evidence. We’ve kicked off our first two reviews, on adult skills policy and business support, and these will report in the New Year. So how are we going about it?

There are different ways to do systematic reviews. In their forthcoming report, for example, the Alliance for Useful Evidence distinguish between ‘exploratory’ approaches – describing who’s doing what in different places – and ‘structured ‘ approaches, where we consider the effectiveness of those policies using more formal techniques.

These approaches support each other, and there are many people already doing exploratory work in the area of local economic growth. This is why we’re taking a structured approach in our work. This means focusing on quantitative evidence and evaluations, and ranking policies using cost-benefit analysis. As well as putting numbers on ‘what works’, we also want to try and establish ‘what works where’. Not an easy nut to crack.

Arup will be doing the legwork on the reviews working in partnership with LSE and an expert Academic Panel. The literature search is vast: we are covering evidence from all OECD countries, with no time-scale limit (although we suspect that most of what we find will be fairly contemporary). We are looking at the academic literature (published and work in progress), think tank reports and policy evaluations commissioned by Whitehall, Local Authorities and LEPs. Our first theme currently has a long list of hundreds of studies.

Once we have drawn up our list of we will shortlist the 50 most relevant and methodologically robust studies (using the Maryland Scientific Methods Scale to rank them in terms of robustness). Each study will get a full technical review, quality-checked by the Panel. We’ll publish a synthesis document which identifies the most cost-effective interventions (plus a shorter, snappier summary – not everyone wants to read a 20-page technical report). These will form the basis of an online best practice toolkit which we’ll develop during the Centre’s lifetime.

Are we confident that the reviews can effectively summarise the evidence on what works? Yes, we have a skilled team of people drawn together to complete the reviews, and an excellent panel of academics to advise us.

Are we confident that there is always good quality evidence? Not yet. We will need to make the most of what’s out there in order to build useful findings for those driving local economic – who after all, need to make difficult decisions about scarce resources. Ultimately, that may mean identifying ‘promising practices’ if we can’t pin down the single most effective intervention.

Do we think we can help shape future policy making and decisions? Absolutely. Even if we ratify what is already being done, or can point out where things aren’t working, this provides decision makers with a stronger basis for their policy choices.

We will be completing a series of reviews in the coming months – we have a long list which we will be refining in discussions with our local partners. So we will be talking with many of you as we develop the reviews and fine-tune our approach. We look forward to your ideas and suggestions! We will also let you see early thoughts from the first two reviews as we move through them. For now a vast sea of papers need to be navigated and hopefully soon we will see the horizon.