Ten years after founding What Works Network, an initiative to improve the use of social science data in the design and delivery of public services in the UK. Michael Sanders And Jonathan Brecon discuss their effectiveness and outline three ways to improve them in the future.
It’s been a decade since launch UK What Works Centers at Nesta as Treasury and Cabinet Ministers, and Executive Director of the ESRC. The idea behind these centers is very simple: to help busy decision makers access the best social science available about what works.
Ten years later, we have learned a lot, but much remains to be done. To celebrate success and face challenges, we have edited book featuring leaders and thinkers from across the web.
From what we have heard directly from the centers, we have learned that it is time to take a step back and think about the next steps. This has become even more urgent with the departure of a key leader, David Halpern, who ended his term as What Works National Cabinet Adviser in 2022, a post he has held since the centers launched in 2013.
Reflecting on the lessons learned from across the network, with book chapters provided by the leaders of most existing centers, we believe there are 3 broad areas that need to be addressed in order for the centers to continue to thrive in the future. This is data; strategic approach to growth; and cooperation.
1. Higher quality and useful data as standard
Richard Thaler, Nobel Laureate in Economics, said that “we can’t make policy based on facts without evidence.” We would add to this that “we cannot provide proof without data”.
That work centers can be most successful when it’s easy to measure the results they care about. Perhaps the greatest asset of the Education Support Fund is not its donation, but the huge amount of education data that exists in England and the fact that it is available to researchers, which allows us, for example, to understand Effects of educational interventions for young people with a social worker.
The UK Government has supported the creation of a series of datasets – a hospital episodes statistics dataset; the Longitudinal Educational Outcomes data set and others that are designed to transform research in the areas they cover, but more can be done first to collect more useful data as a standard and make it available for research.
2. More strategic approach
The What Works centers largely emerged independently, often in response to a minister’s agenda. Thus, the topography of the What Works network is an interesting observation.
What is done is done. Instead of reviewing the past, the government and other donors have the opportunity to look at new centers from a strategic perspective. Without wanting to create a different structure, the one we found useful for prioritizing projects within a single What Works Center can usefully be applied to the meta question here. This approach encourages us to focus on the “three Ms”;
- A lot of – how many people are affected by the policy area?
- adversity – when people experience negative results (or no positive ones), how bad is that?
- Money – how much is the government and others spending on it?
There are some policy areas where all three M’s apply – we could think about climate change, for example – but we don’t need to satisfy all three to consider an area worth building an evidence base.
3. Closer cooperation
We also see a need for greater collaboration between What Works centers. We proceed from the premise that “cooperation for the sake of cooperation” is undesirable and may even be counterproductive.
However, cross-center collaboration makes financial sense (how many different trials or systematic reviews, including Triple P or multisystem therapy, do we run?
Need? Or standards of proof?) and increasingly reflects how professionals on the front lines should behave, especially when working with young people. We need to create more opportunities and spaces for collaboration.
Take, for example, one of the greatest social problems of our time – inequality (one chapter of the book is devoted to it). Inequality is a problem that causes a lot of suffering for many people, and its economic consequences are as profound as the social ones. However, inequality is also a many-headed beast. It is only natural that any “Center for Equality That Works” will focus on education, employment and healthcare. By focusing on racial disparity, he may focus more on policing; if by sex, then by economic growth; and if sexuality and gender identity, then mental health or homelessness. Inequality is a problem that exists for All What Works Centers in policy areas where we are trying to make a difference; in the research we conduct and commission, and within our own organizations.
Using these opportunities to improve the network is of great importance. Without this, it is unclear whether the promise of evidence-based policymaking can ever be realised. As long as the centers operate in a siled, siled way and use expensive custom datasets, the network will fail to achieve the desired transformational change.
The content created on this blog is for informational purposes only. This article represents the views and opinions of the authors, but does not reflect the views and opinions of the Impact of Social Science blog (blog) or the London School of Economics and Political Science. Please see our comment policy if you have any concerns about posting a comment below.
Image credit: Sol via Unsplash.com.