Evidence-based policy and practice in public services

03 October 2017

All those interested in the role of research evidence in policy and practice will be familiar with What Works? Evidence-based policy and practice in public services, edited by Huw Davies, Sandra Nutley, and Peter Smith and published in 2000.

This highly influential book considered the role of evidence in specific public policy areas (healthcare, education, criminal justice, social care, welfare, housing, transport and urban renewal), using experts in each field to explore how evidence is produced, shared and used.

This issue is central to the work of the Nuffield Foundation, which funds research that we hope will improve the design and operation of social policy, particularly in Education, Welfare and Justice.

The authors are now collaborating with a range of UK and international contributors to produce a successor volume, which will extend and update their overview and identify the significant changes since 2000. In September 2017 we convened a seminar to give the authors an opportunity to discuss their latest thinking with people who generate, synthesise, interpret and use research evidence. The seminar was attended by representatives from government departments, public bodies, and the voluntary sector, as well as researchers from universities, research institutes and think tanks.

Progress and challenges

Although there was general agreement that considerable progress had been made since 2000, there were differing degrees of optimism about the future of the field. On the plus side, people identified a number of positive developments:

  • The proliferation of ‘brokerage’ institutions (such as the What Works Network).
  • Improved understanding of the need for experimental designs (alongside other forms of evidence).
  • Greater recognition of the need to identify what is promising, as well as what works.
  • Improved data infrastructure data.

However, alongside this was the view that:

  • There is still insufficient learning across sectors.
  • Short-term instrumental evidence dominates longer-term conceptual research.
  • Too often evidence is ‘pushed out’ rather than co-produced.
  • Austerity and lack of public trust in experts and evidence may hinder progress.
  • There is a lack of empirical research on what works in research uptake, and the effectiveness of mechanisms to translate research findings into practice.

On this last point, two international Foundations shared their experience of developing programmes to understand research uptake, and of funding empirical work in this area. The Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research (Canada) and the William T Grant Foundation (USA) both identified some necessary elements to undertaking work of this kind:

  • The importance of investing time and effort in building collaborative relationships between researchers and policy and practice communities.
  • The need for research funders interested in impact to develop their own expertise in research brokerage. 
  • The need to develop ways to measure the use of research and to study ways of improving the use of research.

Following the seminar, we are continuing our dialogue with The Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research and the William T Grant Foundation to explore the potential for international collaboration on these topics.