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How to use and produce evidence to inform policy

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New Economy’s role in the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth was formally kicked off last week with two events in London and Leeds exploring the ways in which evidence is used in local policy making. Using Greater Manchester as a case study, the workshops looked at how evidence shapes the development of local strategy, programme delivery, and day to day decision-making. Unsurprisingly, there was varying views from delegates about how this happens, but broad agreement that it is usually messy, partial, and rarely totally satisfying.

Greater Manchester has done more than most to embed the use of evidence in all aspects of its decision making. This began with the Manchester Independent Economic Review in 2008 and is currently best illustrated by its development and adoption of a Cost-Benefit Analysis methodology, which has recently been included as supplementary guidance for other local areas to use in HMT’s Green Book, the Government’s bible on how to go about spending public money.

How to replicate the Greater Manchester model in other areas was a question that was returned to frequently. Greater Manchester’s leadership and governance cannot be easily replicated, but we can replicate the principles of evidence generation being used there to build understanding and consensus. There’s an element of chicken and egg – and clearly I am not without a vested interest in saying this – but valuing and maintaining resources for research and evaluation, even in straightened times, has also reaped benefits.

Looking to the future, most delegates were convinced that a greater focus on evaluation before policies are enacted on the ground is necessary if we are to genuinely start to understand what works in generating local economic growth. It’s not enough simply to understand the evidence base, we need to grow it too. Researchers, policy makers, and front-line staff will all need to work differently to enable this culture shift to happen.

Both events ended with a discussion about what more the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth could do to support local decision making. More case studies and the release of more evaluation evidence – even if it is at the lower end of the quality scale – were the most common requests. As is usual to say in these things, it’s too early to evaluate whether the Centre is working, but the London event ended on a happy note with one local authority revealing that on the strength of the report on Business Advice they had opted not to spend a few hundred thousand pounds on a website in favour of focusing on one to one mentoring. As evidence of impact goes, it’s not quite of the gold standard that the Centre is looking for but it is certainly encouraging.

Look out for details of future New Economy-What Works events as the workshops start to be rolled out across the country later this year.