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It’s time for local partnerships to get serious about evaluation

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As a cross party consensus slowly emerges on the merits of devolving greater powers to cities and regions, the findings of the first two evidence reviews from the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth – on employment training and business advice – are notable as much for the gaps they highlight as for the conclusions they draw.

The Centre seeks to embed robust evaluation as part of the practical reality of driving local economic growth. Much of this is about culture and capacity, helping policymakers and practitioners to treat evaluation as an integral part of service design rather than an added extra. The Centre’s reviews to date, however, make clear some of the practical challenges to achieving this.

Taking the area of employment training, for example, there is a clear tension between the goals of commissioning services and the goals of evaluation. Many skills and employment support programmes are commissioned to fill gaps in existing provision and are part of a ‘pipeline’ or ‘supply chain’ through which individuals might progress over a period of time, making it difficult to disaggregate and assess the impact of individual aspects of provision. Provision is also often targeted at specific cohorts according to geographical need or sector specialisms, with numbers of participants tending to be restricted primarily by available budgets. In this context, the idea of deliberately determining a ‘control group’ which does not receive a given intervention might potentially be seen as irrelevant or even unethical. Practitioners will come to projects with an existing understanding, whether intuitive, experiential or evidence-based, of ‘what works’. They will also have a pressing need to achieve results with scarce resources. They will not necessarily have the desire, or the capacity, to establish an intervention in a way that allows for comparison of one or two variables, such as the duration of an intervention, while keeping all other conditions equal.

Yet the Local Growth Deals currently being negotiated with all Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), in the wake of City Deals, offer a renewed impetus for local partnerships to consider how they square this circle and build evaluation into their activity. Minister for Cities Greg Clark and his cross-departmental team have consistently emphasised ‘additionality’ – or to put it more colloquially, the ‘so what test’ – in assessing Growth Deal proposals, probing exactly what additional outcomes on growth and jobs local areas would be able to deliver if given the freedoms they have asked for. In a post Regional Development Agency landscape, this is a challenge to which local partnerships must rise if they want the devolution of powers to functional economic areas to become the norm, rather than an exception.

In the clash between what LEPs are demanding from Growth Deals and what Government Departments are prepared to accept, a number of time-limited initiatives are beginning to emerge from Growth Deal negotiations, which could trigger more substantial devolution if they can prove their worth. Robust evaluation, including credible cost-benefit analysis which demonstrates clear net fiscal benefits from an intervention, will be crucial in ensuring that these initiatives do not simply exist as one-off, isolated ‘pilots’. Rather, a successful demonstration of a new and better way of working must lead to long term agreements with Government: to devolve significant Departmental budget lines, allow local areas to keep and reinvest the returns of growing local business output or supporting more people into employment, or even extend local fiscal powers. If LEPs and local authorities do not apply themselves to this bigger picture opportunity, or fail to present sufficiently robust evidence in a way that resonates with Government, some areas may secure little more from the Growth Deals than a time-limited grant to run a few programmes or improve a piece of infrastructure.

The ‘deal’ based approach to devolution, though it has clear limitations, has been developed by Greg Clark and others into a strong platform for culture change within Government. In identifying the current lack of rigorous and objective evidence on what works in driving local economic growth, the What Works Centre has highlighted the key challenge which local partnerships will need to surmount in order to push the deal model to its limits and achieve lasting change.