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Why evaluation is critical to improving levelling-up policymaking

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The National Audit Office’s recent report about what works to deliver local economic growth may have been slightly over-shadowed by the Government’s Medici-referencing, three-hundred-page, Levelling Up White Paper, released on the same day, but its conclusions have important implications for levelling up.

The report suggests that successive administrations have not done enough to learn about what works for local economic growth, with the result that the evidence base supporting current efforts to ‘level up’ the country is not strong enough.

A recent Institute for Government event, and Centre for Cities podcast are two of the latest examples of the policy world’s interest in these findings, with both organisations asking: what can be done to avoid the same mistakes this time round; and what evidence should we look to in the meantime? [In the interests of full disclosure, I should say I was involved in both!]

Better evidence on delivering local growth

Here at What Works Growth, we’d be the first to argue that the current evidence provides some important insights about what works for local economic growth. For example, when it comes to interventions such as employment training and apprenticeships there is a decent evidence base providing useful lessons for decision-makers about the types of interventions that are most likely to be effective.

But it’s also true that we know less about what works to drive local growth to improve health, reduce crime, or raise educational attainment. This is because we don’t have enough impact evaluation of what has been done before. This is a challenge when it comes to designing successful levelling up policies.

There are several reasons why the evidence base for local growth remains relatively weak. One important factor is that, because local growth interventions are – rightly – often designed and delivered at the local level, responsibility for evaluation is often devolved to the local level as well. Unfortunately, local stakeholders often face the greatest barriers to carrying out or commissioning robust impact evaluation.

More evaluations of interventions on the ground

We’ve written before about the need for more central coordination for impact evaluations of local projects, to help overcome some of these barriers. So it was great to see the recent UK Shared Prosperity Fund prospectus set out an approach to evaluation that will help us to learn robust lessons about what works at the local level – a commitment to centrally delivering impact evaluations for a number of the specific interventions delivered through the Fund.

For those of us who want to see a stronger evidence base, this is a really important development in a policy area where the choice of whether to do robust evaluation of specific interventions is too often left to individual places, many of which struggle to overcome the barriers alluded to above.

Of course, this change won’t be enough on its own to transform the evidence on local growth. We need to reduce barriers and improve incentives across a wide range of local growth interventions, not just those funded through the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. That’s why we welcomed the Government’s White Paper commitment to improving incentives for evaluation, monitoring and experimentation and look forward to seeing what steps they will take to deliver this.

In the meantime, What Works Growth will continue to work with local governments to support the impact evaluation that is taking place, and to understand more about what changes are needed for more to happen. It will take a combination of central and local action to deliver the evidence base needed to support local economic growth.