A few years ago, evidence-based policy making was all the rage in government departments and local public services. Most people would agree with its main aims: using robust and objective evidence to develop policies before rigorously evaluating their impact after implementation. In 2013, Oliver Letwin and Danny Alexander said it was “a fundamental principle of good public services that decisions are made on the basis of strong evidence” when they launched the What Works initiative.
But despite this, we tend to hear less about evidence-based policy nowadays. So what has happened to it?
Part of this issue is funding related. Government and public services have prioritised front line services as budgets decrease, meaning there isn’t the money, and sometimes the people, required to undertake large scale research and evaluation projects.
The second issue is that investment in this kind of work hasn’t always represented good value for money. For some decision makers it takes too long to collect and analyse the information they need. Sometimes important decisions need to be made quickly and can’t wait to be guided by evidence.
Others criticise the way evidence is presented, saying the clear and concise recommendations they require to support policy formulation are sacrificed in the pursuit of objectivity. On the other hand, some say objectivity is lacking altogether and evidence-based policies are actually damaging, as selective evidence is chosen to reflect the self-interests of its producer. This kind of ‘policy-based evidence’ is commissioned or suppressed, depending on the extent to which it supports the decision that’s already been made anyway.
Given the current pace and scale of change in the public sector, other commentators say evidence-based policy making just doesn’t result in the kind of radical decisions that are needed right now. Using intuition, imagination, ideology and experience might lead to bolder policies. Intuitive decision-making could be considered more appropriate as many public policies are values based.
So has the death knell been rung on evidence-based policy making? Is it too slow, too expensive and too lacking imagination to be useful in today’s decision making?
We don’t think so. We believe robust evidence drives bold policy decisions. We frequently see the benefits of combining innovation and analytics, and it can be done quickly and inexpensively. There are organisations in every sector realising the potential of fully exploiting and understanding their data to develop smarter policies. This approach is giving them the insight they need to overcome current challenges and achieve their strategic goals.
Organisations, and particularly those in the public sector, produce huge volumes of data, which has huge potential. For example, you can create new and imaginative insights by systematically collating your data, experimenting with how data varies between places or groups of people, and comparing or combining your data with other information you have about service users and residents. And the technology now exists to integrate, manage and powerfully analyse vast datasets at costs and in timescales that were impossible a few years ago.
Some other examples of where data and analytics can benefit policy decisions include:
- Understanding how the impacts of new policies and strategic initiatives could vary by demographics or geographic factors
- Optimising policy or service design to achieve the best balance between outcomes and investment required
- Modelling the impact of budget changes on operational delivery or service use
- Simulating if the uptake of a new service or benefits of a policy change will represent good value for money
- Using segmentation to develop targeted services or interventions where they are needed most
- Using diagnostic analysis to find where, when or how service stresses develop
- Developing early warning systems to prevent service failure
- Simulating potential responses and resilience to future strategic risk scenarios.
Insights gained from the full breadth of data that a public organisation holds will give you powerful knowledge about your residents and service users. These insights will help you determine what the best course of action is, before decisions are made. Combining these insights with more traditional research and evaluation techniques can be particularly powerful.