Building a Platform for Evidence Use in Local Government

This blog was originally published on Demsoc’s Open Policy Blog.

I attended the “Informed Future” workstream at the 2012 Solace Summit, and whilst I won’t try to give a blow-by-blow account I want to share here some of the key things which emerged, for me.  There is a lot of hard work at many levels required before Local Government in general can be really effective in this domain, and unless we progress each of the strands simultaneously the process will take much longer than it needs to.

Two statements of principle (to give us purpose)

– A rigorous  evidence-based approach will be essential for tackling some of the huge issues we face – especially long-term multi-agency preventative interventions. We have early examples which are tremendously encouraging – the work of the Dartington Social Research Unit looks especially strong in that regard. A lack of robust needs-based segmentation means that many folk are given services that are not aligned with their needs and so waste resources (arguably “Troubled families” are an extreme example of this).

– Evidence is not in opposition to judgement or democratic choice. Evidence informs both, but can only ever be one input.  It was startling how often in discussion even quite well-informed and senior local government folk appeared to regard evidence as being something which removed the possibility of judgement or democratic input.  It speaks to the lack of a culture of use that familiarity with a notion of democratic objectives and judgement giving rise to research questions which require interpretation and the addition of yet more judgement and democratic input does not seem well established.

Two things that Chief Execs can do in their authorities (to help it happen)

– develop a culture of use of evidence. This may mean a critical self-appraisal of their own comfort to engage with this, and the skills needed around them. Recruitment and personal professional development decisions in the next few years should all bear in mind a need to lead by example with emphasising the value of information. This is about incorporating and developing the evidence base into a coherent narrative of the organisation that it is the job of the CE to co-produce with members. There is almost certainly an opportunity to draw on public health expertise in this area.  A small step councils could take would be to add a box for “evidence base examined” to the many other pro forma boxes such as “legal implications”, “equalities impact” etc on their formal public decision-making committee reports.

– support data improvement.  Even if we resolved all of the cultural issues immediately we would be hampered in our ability to apply rigorous evidence by data quality and data sharing issues.  There are technical people in our organisations who are trying to resolve these issues; they should be sought out and supported – small investment over time will have a big impact when we need it to tackle the really wicked choices for our communities beyond 2015

Two issues for the Sector (that need to be handled at that level)

– We need to begin a discussion about use of evidence and engage/educate in issues around how we will test interventions. We need to get upstream of issues such as the ethics of control groups, randomised control trials so that when we are actually ready to do these things, this doesn’t suddenly become the constraint.

– We need to back LARIAThe Alliance for Useful Evidence, “what-works centres” etc as central repositories of research knowledge and expertise. Their results won’t be perfect first time, but there are some areas where we really cannot afford to have each authority in the country developing its own overview of all relevant research, and there must be benefits of collaboration.

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Reflections on the Solace Summit 2012

This is a slightly modified version of the blog originally published at localgovernmentmatters.

As with last year’s summit a formal communiqué will be issued so I will take some space here to talk about the mood of the meeting and offer a personal perspective, rather than trying to be comprehensive.

  • The bulk of the work of this Summit (and it was work – not just passive receipt of talks) took place in workstreams, but opening plenaries from Martin Reeves, Coventry CE and Solace’s new president, and Matthew Taylor, CEO of the RSA painted a picture of organisations grappling with an extraordinary amount of change, and having to deploy new approaches, and new partnerships, in order to do that.  Matthew Taylor proposed a model that identified three sources of change-power, all of which needed to be aligned to create effective change: 1. Hierarchical formal power, 2. Social power – the group norms and 3. Individual interests and actions.  The Olympics were an excellent example of these three elements all coming together –some of the historical top-down government initiatives were not.  Matthew’s closing thought was that local authorities are far better able to tap into these three sources of power than any national government can be.
  • I followed closely a workstream entitled “Informed Future” which considered the role for hard evidence in supporting some of the difficult choices that councils need to make.In particular complex societal interventions in troubled families, and preventative and supportive actions for the ageing population. There is going to be a significant cultural journey for many local authorities to embrace deeply evidence-based actions, and the first step is to realize that evidence doesn’t remove the scope for judgement or democratic determination, rather it informs and shapes it.
  • There was a an excellent case study from Birmingham City Council, presented by the Dartington Social Research Unit, which showed that well-structured evaluation of complex interventions can add real value to decision-making without supplanting it.
  • Francis Maude, Minister in the Cabinet office spoke on the last day.  He spoke well with a number of important comments about taking some of the mythology and complexity out of procurement. He suggests having really good conversations with suppliers about the art of the possible well before you frame an actual procurement, which you can then expedite quickly.  Talk to the market about what you want to achieve rather than specify exactly how things should be done – which stifles innovation.
  • The minister was also strong in his conviction about the role of employee-owned mutuals in liberating staff to better performance.  Furthermore he was keen to see 25% of public sector money going through the supply chain or directly to SMEs, against which it is perhaps interesting to note that 32% of Capita’s spend is with SMEs.
  • Lastly, I was struck that an increasing number of Solace members are people who (like me) are currently out of local government in the private sector or other sectors: this felt like a real strength this year with more people able to make comments which could straddle perspectives – if Solace can continue to hang on to its alumni it can only increase its reach.  There are also a number of “Friends of Solace” from other organisations who have now been to a number of summits and through their personal continuity are well positioned to add value.

I have blogged at greater length about the “Informed Futures” Summit and this can be found here.

The Question Every PCC Candidate Should Answer

On November 15th something incredibly important happens – as a country we elect Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) for the first time.  These will be people who will have considerable sway over the nature, shape and priorities of policing and crime prevention in our area.  To have such roles subject to election is new.  There is considerable speculation that the level of engagement and turnout will be low.

In a “normal” world the fact that we are doing this new thing might not matter too much, but the next few years are going to be far from normal for the police forces – there is likely to be a c25% cut in police budgets.  As such the elected PCCs will have to make some incredibly difficult decisions.  In choosing the PCC for your area you may well wish to understand how they will approach that task – I certainly want to.

I have emailed the two candidates for election in my area (Hertfordshire) the following question, and I will post responses received here.

 

Dear {Candidate}
I am considering how to vote in the forthcoming PCC election.  I am a resident of Hertfordshire.  As I see it a fundamental question to ask of any PCC candidate is:
During your tenure as a PCC, you will be required to make decisions relating to a large scale reduction in the budget (some figures suggest 25%).  What are the fundamental principles which will underlie your decisions, please?
 
I am also writing to {the other candidate} and propose to place both answers received on my blog.
Regards
Jonathan Flowers

 

I would urge interested readers to send something similar to your candidates (you could share the answers here too, if you like).

You can get more information about PCCs here http://www.choosemypcc.org.uk/