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Reports and evaluations will be ignored if they do not help achieve the goals of policymakers

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After months and even years of diligent research, writing, review and revision, think tanks and academics can rightly feel a great sense of achievement and satisfaction on the day that their report is finally proofed, printed and posted to the great and good within their field. If this report, with its detailed policy recommendations and proposals, arrived unsolicited onto the desk of Nick Pearce while he was head of the No.10 Policy Unit under Gordon Brown, it would continue its journey straight on into the bin, just one volume in a small library of reports that had to be disposed of daily.

This quietly dispiriting observation came as part of a discussion that the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth organised in Bristol to mark the third anniversary of the Centre’s founding. After three years, we wanted to reflect with local policy practitioners on the role that evidence plays in policy making, what the Centre has learnt in the past three years and how we plan to develop in the future.

There was no malice behind Nick’s binning of unsolicited reports, but rather a lack of time to commit to reading a report from an organisation that he did not know, on a topic he was not sure was relevant to his work, with proposed outcomes that may or may not align with his goals, priorities, or timelines. Politicians and policymakers are too busy running the country to sit around waiting to be told about good ideas.

While today it’s more likely to be an email instantly deleted than a booklet swept into a waste paper basket, the message to researchers and practitioners is still true: when it comes to influencing policy, relationships are key – evidence on its own will not always be enough. If policymakers can’t put a face to a name, aren’t expecting your work, or can’t see how it will help them or their bosses achieve their goals, then it falls by the wayside, even before other factors come into play, among them: normative judgments about outcomes, vested interests, party divisions, upcoming elections and budgetary restrictions.

Our workshops with New Economy include advice for practitioners on how to fit their work into wider objectives in order to build demand for evidence-based policy from local leaders and senior officers. High-quality evidence and evaluation that helps decision makers fulfil their goals stokes the demand for evidence across the board.

The second major theme of the discussion with Nick was the increasing opportunities for innovation in, and evaluation of, local economic policy that the next few years will bring. With the evidence reviews now complete, our work has shifted towards building capacity and demand at the local level for designing, implementing and evaluating policy effectively. Devolution in general and metro mayors in particular offer an exciting opportunity for city leaders to find out what really works in their area. Moving from a highly centralised system governed from SW1 to a more devolved, distributed government with capacity and accountability in town halls across our major cities could open up the space for experimentation and improvement in local economic policymaking that has been missing for decades in the UK. Making sure evaluation, evidence and openness are at the heart of this movement is key for best practice to be shared – and for failure to be recognised early and avoided elsewhere. We will be working with metro mayors to make sure that this happens as quickly and widely as possible.

The biggest problem faced by Nick Pearce in his role at the No.10 Policy Unit was that there was only one of him. The other advantage of distributing power across the country would be to create five or six Nick Pearces and Policy Units with deep knowledge of their local areas. There would also be five or six times the opportunity for researchers to connect with empowered policy makers, and in that world, the odds of a report avoiding an immediate trip to the bin could be greatly reduced.