The Alliance for Useful Evidence held its summer networking event on July 24th. I attended and was interested to see relatively low representation from local government compared to central government and the third sector. Yet local government has much to gain from thinking about using evidence more effectively, and much to contribute to the debate to ensure the specific issues it faces are taken into account.
At the event, David Willetts discussed the relationship between evidence and politics. On the one hand, he claimed, empirical evidence can work to bridge the gap between different ideological viewpoints – yet on the other, the politician’s role is to ‘respond to events by instinct in accordance with party politics’ rather than to make evidence-based decisions. Willetts argued that academic research sometimes fails to take politics into account and this may be reflected in a lack of sophistication in policy analysis relative to the treatment of data.
Willetts’s focus on the effects of politics is a useful reminder that “pure” empirical evidence can rarely be isolated from other influences. He presented payment-by-results programmes as an exemplar of evidence-based decision-making, yet the controversies over Atos’s delivery of the work capability assessment are currently showing how supposedly objective, empiricist, methodologies – such as eligibility criteria – can become intensely politicised.
Local authorities face additional issues in this regard. They must take account of the political dimension of decisions but, since it’s particularly important for them to be responsive to the communities they serve, they are tied still more directly to local viewpoints and preferences when making decisions. If local values conflict with the evidence, should they be considered less valid?
Secondly, this close relationship to the community means that the most rich and valuable information can be that which comes from frontline workers – at the same time, this can be the most difficult to capture and analyse systematically because it is so varied, specific, and bound up in the practicalities of doing the job rather than evidencing it.
Thirdly, evidence, to be effective for local government decision-making, needs a local focus, on whether an intervention is right for this particular place. National statistics and academic research can help paint a picture – and Rehema White presents ingenious options for commissioning locally focused research – but I’d suggest that a local focus means we also need to consider how we use and share data both internally and locally, and how this can be “converted” into evidence.
At the Alliance event, Geoff Mulgan pointed to the ‘“difficultness” of evidence’, and suggested that a ‘surge’ in available data is not the same thing as a surge in available evidence. I would argue that we understand that we have to “do stuff” to data to make it useful as evidence; analyse it or cross-reference it with other data sets: however, we tend to focus on doing this statically rather than dynamically.
Thus, resources are targeted towards bringing datasets together and analysing them at a particular point in time, and the output of this process forms the basis of strategy. Dynamic data is instead organised so that datasets interact and are reported on in real time. Analysis becomes continuous feedback, rather than a snapshot, and the relationship between strategy and data itself becomes dynamic.
Initiatives such as integrated Customer Relationship Management systems can create these links internally, but there are both extra benefits to be realised and challenges to be faced when linking data held by different organisations – not just access, confidentiality and consent, but the technicalities of making those links. Local authorities thus need to target their strategic thinking, and allocate resources, at the beginning of the data-collection process, asking not only how they currently want their data to interact, but how it could be organised to make it as open as possible to future coordination with other agencies.
Is this realistic for local authorities at present? I’m carrying out a research project for SOLACE looking at good practice in storing and sharing data, and would be very interested to hear of further examples, particularly of dynamic inter-agency data sharing, in comments or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Elissa Rospigliosi is a National Management Trainee at Dacorum Borough Council and a participant on the SOLACE Foundation’s Future Leaders’ Scheme, SOLACE Springboard.