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Reflections on evidence-based policy in disadvantaged places

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Last Wednesday, at an event at Church House, Westminster, we launched Evidence-based policy in disadvantaged places, our latest publication that is the combined effort of What Works Network members.

This blog is a summary of my reflections from the event and from having worked closely on the project.

The location was fitting: as Brexit was feverishly debated nearby, we discussed an issue that has received less attention but is the cause of no less controversy: disadvantaged places. We had struggled to correctly name this project, and this did not go unnoticed. The term was questioned by a member of the audience, who, in line with Rebecca Solnit’s book ‘Call them by their true names’, suggested its naming framed the conversation away from the true issues.

The event was busy and I suspect that this was due to the timeliness of the report and to the quality of the panel assembled to discuss the issue. With comments from the pioneering Essex City Council, represented by Shammi Jalota, critiques from Mike Hawking from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and insights from the Youth Futures Foundation’s Head of Strategy Eleanor Stringer, the project’s key stakeholders discussed our six steps to better evidence-based policy in disadvantaged places, both validating and challenging our assumptions.

At the conclusion of roughly eight months of work and visits to Grimsby and Wakefield, the network of What Work Centres came away from this short project recognising just how much more needs to be done to ensure the evidence base can help these places prioritise and move forward. The event encouraged us to debate and scrutinise the epistemological assumptions of the What Works Network itself:

  • Should we rely on ‘evidence’, as we define it, to make decisions?
  • How do you aggregate heterogeneous evidence built from different definitions of robustness
  • When it comes to helping disadvantaged places, does evidence matter, or can a social or political case be made to invest regardless? 

A full answer to these questions is not the focus of this blog, though we would welcome any thoughts or comments. Our broad take on this issue is that policy will improve as the quantitative and qualitative evidence grows, that evidence must continue to be generated, and that evidence does a good job at informing what works within specific policy areas. And indeed, as Mike Hawking broached, “just because we don’t know what works does not mean that we should not carry on trying to understand what works”.