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Policy challenge: Evidence-based policy in disadvantaged places

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How can evidence-based policy help towns and cities suffering from high unemployment and poverty, poor health outcomes and other social problems?

In places often referred to as ‘left behind’ or ‘disadvantaged’, social problems act as a barrier to improving economic outcomes, while poor economic outcomes act as a barrier to tackling social problems. For places with vulnerable populations, the pressure on local government to allocate scarce time and money to an increasing number of issues is mounting. This pressure is exacerbated by the budget cuts local governments have experienced under austerity.

In 2019, the What Works Network brought together its collective expertise to work in-depth with two towns, Grimsby and Wakefield, to identify ways in which evidence-based policymaking could support better outcomes in these places.

The project report sets out six principles of evidence-based policy design for authorities having to do more with less. It also identifies two areas of practice which are relevant to multiple policy areas, and where the evidence suggests small changes could make a difference to important outcomes for residents.

We hope that these modest suggestions will be useful to staff in local authorities, combined authorities and local enterprise partnerships, as well as those in government and the third sector who work with them to address the ‘wicked problems’ that some of their residents are facing.

Project report: Evidence-based policy in disadvantaged places

Six steps for doing more with less – taking an evidence-based approach in disadvantaged places

The project team identified six principles of evidenced-based policy design for authorities having to do more with less. Most can be put in place immediately, do not require an overhaul of existing programmes and apply across a range of policy areas. The project report contains more detail on each of the six steps, and includes links to toolkits and practical guidance.

Applying the evidence to existing practices

Having met with the two places to understand the issues facing them in more detail, the What Works Centres reviewed their respective evidence bases for relevant evidence that could be applied across policy areas. They identified two areas of practice where the evidence suggests small changes could make a difference to important outcomes for residents.

Using reminders to improve take up and engagement

One of the challenges the team heard about in a variety of contexts was the difficulty in engaging vulnerable people to take up and follow through with support and development. Sending reminders represents one way of improving these outcomes. To help improve their use, the team pulled together evidence from across the What Works Network — and from the Behavioural Insights Team — on what is known about using reminders to improve take up and engagement.

Reminders – evidence headlines

  • Text message reminders are very low cost and the evidence suggests they can be effective in improving attendance at employment training courses, school, medical appointments, and even improving rates of college enrolment.
  • Reminders should be as simple as possible and should highlight the benefits to the recipient of participation.
  • The evidence suggests that reminders are often more effective for those least likely to attend.

The available evidence is of a high quality and points to positive effects at generally very low costs. For example:

  • Employment training programmes: Text message reminders had positive effects on course attendance and final exam performance. Reminders that improve training attendance sometimes also had positive effects on performance, as measured by final grades. Reminders appeared to be most effective for those least likely to attend employment training.
  • School attendance: Texts to parents about children’s activities and attendance records reduced student absenteeism, and there were also some positive effects on pupil performance.
  • Healthcare appointment/medical treatments: Both text messaging reminders and telephone reminders increased attendance rates at healthcare appointments. However, postal reminders were not effective. Reminders were also effective in getting people to take medication.
  • Other contexts: The effectiveness of reminders is supported by the evidence available from other contexts — and other countries — such as claiming benefits, college enrolment, gym attendance, voting in non-compulsory elections, and saving money.

Using mentors to support people in need

During meetings with the two participating places, one intervention that recurred as a proposed solution for a range of problems was mentoring. To help improve the cost-effectiveness of mentoring programmes, the team pulled together key insights from the collective evidence base of the What Works Network on what works for designing, developing and implementing good mentoring programmes.

Mentoring – evidence headlines

  • Across a range of policy areas, mentoring programmes have had some positive impacts.
  • It is important to think about who is being mentored and how mentors will be selected and matched to mentees carefully, and to consider what kind of support will be offered to mentors.
  • The length of the mentoring programme and the frequency and length of meetings can all make a difference to how well the programme works.
  • Poorly-terminated relationships — especially due to mentor drop-outs — may lead to negative outcomes. It is therefore important to think about how programmes are going to end.
  • There is evidence that these programmes can be good for mentors as well as the mentees.

Whether mentoring is effective depends on the type of programme and the aim:

  • Apprenticeships: Mentors improved rates of completion and the level of skills. There was no impact on broader outcomes.
  • Academic achievement: Mentors had little impact on academic achievement of school children but did have a positive impact for non-academic outcomes such as attitudes to school, attendance and behaviour.
  • Reoffending: Reoffending rates fell for those enrolled on mentoring programmes.
  • Wellbeing: There is evidence that mentoring is good for the wellbeing of the mentor as well as the mentee.

Project background

Policymakers in the UK understand that there are towns and cities around the country which face deep economic decline and have done for some years. Whether as a result of geographical isolation or the rapid decline of industry, these disadvantaged places face huge policy challenges that are not just economic but include health and social factors too.

This project, led by the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth and working across the What Works Network focused on two towns, Grimsby and Wakefield, chosen both because of the myriad challenges they face, and because they wanted to support the project and take an active role.

The project was designed to develop a deep understanding of these towns, the challenges they faced as ‘disadvantaged places’ and the policy interventions being used to address them. The goal was to draw on the breadth of expertise offered by the What Works Network to provide some evidence-based recommendations for additional or alternative solutions. 

It was the largest What Works Network collaboration to date. The project team hoped to use the collective expertise and evidence of the local authority practitioners and the What Works Network to introduce small interventions in different areas of policy that the evidence has shown to be effective.

Project partners