Away from the despairing talk of ‘post-truth politics’, governments in countries such as the UK, Australia, Canada and France have been setting up important new institutions whose job is to reinforce evidence, and indeed truth, in the everyday work of governments and public services.
These are the ‘what works’ centres. In the UK, there are now ten such centres, and today they will be celebrating the fifth anniversary of their launch at Nesta by ministers from the Treasury and Cabinet Office. This blog describes some of their history; what they do; and where the movement may be heading.
The idea behind these centres is very simple. It’s to help busy people who make decisions access the best available knowledge about what works. To do this they bring together evidence about the best approaches to deliver good outcomes for citizens and value-for-money for the taxpayer.
They do this by orchestrating the best available evidence and making it usable for policymakers, for public servants, and for the wider public. Experience has shown again and again that it’s not enough to gather evidence and put it into repositories. Unless users are closely involved in how evidence is shaped and made accessible, behaviour is unlikely to change.
So the centres work hard on translating research into useful products, distilling complex patterns into formats that can be used by busy professionals. The crime reduction toolkit is a good example, a Which?-style guide at the College of Policing that weighs up the effectiveness of things like correctional bootcamps, CCTV or electronic tagging.
The Centres fill gaps in our knowledge – by running experiments or conducting new studies. For example, Nesta worked with the Education Endowment Foundation to do an early-stage Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT) on affordable, virtual one-to-one maths for English schools, using trained maths graduates in India and Sri Lanka. The Foundation has funded trials in over 150 programmes, creating more RCTs in education than any other organisation across the globe.
Other Centres have looked at different approaches to filling the evidence gaps, such as the Scottish approach to co-production in What Works Scotland, or What Works for Crime Reduction’s analysis of local context. So often, the gaps are not just in our understanding of 'what works', but in 'what works for who, when, where and with who'.
Although the Centres were formally launched in 2013, the history goes back to the late 1990s and the Blair government, which had a strong commitment to evidence-based policy. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), set up in 1999, showed how a new institution could synthesise complex evidence and get it used across a public service, in NICE’s case setting out not just the effectiveness but also the cost-effectiveness of huge numbers of treatments. NICE made tough and sometimes unpopular decisions on the benefits (or unaffordable costs) of expensive drugs and interventions but over time has established itself as a vital part of the NHS.
NICE’s success indirectly showed up just how poorly evidence was organised in other public services. Nesta set up the Alliance for Useful Evidence (with the ESRC and Big Lottery Fund) to address this, advocating for the use of evidence, engaging civil servants and politicians and addressing the need to match the supply of evidence with encouragement of demand.
As part of its work, we made the case in 2012 for establishing a NICE for social policy, and with our partners set out a roadmap to a network of independent new centres linked together by a light coordinating structure, working alongside the AUE network.
Much of what we set out has now materialised (with NICE now formally one of the What Works Centres and, despite recent funding cuts, by far the largest, with around 600 staff in London and Manchester). The next centre to be set up was the Education Endowment Foundation, the result of a funding commitment by the Department for Education. The Sutton Trust and Impetus won an open competitive process and a £125m founding grant from the then Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove.
Other Centres soon followed. Three more came on the scene in 2013: the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) (July 2013, after several years of cross-party discussion, mainly driven by Graham Allen MP); the What Works for Crime Reduction (March 2013); and the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth (October 2013). Other affiliated bodies were created to cover jurisdictions outside England – What Works Scotland and What Works Wales (in the Wales Centre for Public Policy). We have made the case for a What Works Centre in Northern Ireland, but progress is on hold because there has been no government in Stormont for over a year.
In October 2014, What Works Centre for Wellbeing was launched, following a conference at Nesta, chaired by the former head of the UK civil service, Gus O’Donnell, and a series of testimonial blogs. We were home to the wellbeing centre while it was setting up, and have housed two others, helping them on their way to becoming fully-fledged independent charities: the Centre for Ageing Better (which became fully operational in 2015) and the newest member of the network, the £5m incubator for What Works for Children’s Social Care (launched October 2017), a partnership of Nesta with FutureGov, the Social Care Institute for Excellence and the consultancy Traversum.
The Centres aim to work with the grain of users, such as frontline professionals or commissioners of services. Their evidence has to be tailored and targeted. Evidence Basecamps, for example, are moulded around the needs of the police. On-demand evidence advice from the Wales Centre for Public Policy responds to the needs of Welsh ministers and civil servants.
The Centres will always need to adapt and experiment, and learn from the evidence on evidence, as we set out in our 2013 paper 'What Should the What Works Network Do?' They are not rigid and fixed, and will continue to evolve.
While the Centres are independent of government, their evolution needs the support of others. Leadership came from the Cabinet Office and in particular from David Halpern, the National Adviser for What Works who has played a central role in both making the case for new institutions and helping them set up. Funding has also been critical from bodies like the Economic and Social Research Council and the Big Lottery Fund, alongside partnerships from businesses like Arup, think-tanks like the Centre for Cities, or universities like LSE and Cardiff.
The Centres are part of a rich ecosystem of other protagonists, including bottom-up networks like the Society for Evidence Based Policing, all mapped out in the network of 3,500 members of the Alliance for Useful Evidence.
It’s easy to feel pessimistic about the state of evidence and truth when some politicians appear to thrive without any regard for facts, and some crucial decisions appear to be made without any attention to evidence. But seen in the longer view a rather different pattern becomes apparent.
In the everyday work of policymakers and professionals evidence is more visible and more used than ever before. That’s true of doctors, teachers, police officers and social workers. They don’t always follow it; but it’s much more part of the sea they swim in than a generation ago. And evidence feels much more like a movement, driven by passionate and committed individuals who feel a moral duty to attend to evidence, and leading to a stream of like-minded new organisations, including on homelessness, universities, and law. Many other countries have also developed similar bodies – the US now has the What Works Cities network funded by Bloomberg; Canada is setting up its own centre; and countries from France to Japan are developing their own initiatives to embed evidence, drawing on the UK experience.
There are many ways in which these institutions can evolve: making better use of vastly greater flows of data; connecting to neighbouring fields like impact measurement; and sharing global experience (as happened at our Evidence Works conference in 2016, which brought together over 40 countries).
Our main hope; however, is that in another five years the What Works Centres will all be indispensable parts of their systems. At the launch event in 2013 Oliver Letwin MP, the former head of policy for Prime Minister David Cameron, predicted that we will: "Look back in a decade and wonder how we ever did without the What Works Centres". That still feels like the right assessment, and it’s a credit to political leaders of all parties in the UK that they’ve had the courage to create powerful counterweights to the undeniable temptations of policy-based evidence.
Jonathan Breckon is the Director of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Geoff Mulgan is the Chief Executive of Nesta.