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Optimism and accountability: putting evidence at the heart of social policy-making

Published

24 Nov 2016

New EIF director of evidence Tom McBride reflects on the evolution he has seen in the role of evidence in Whitehall policy-making, and its critical role for a civil service bracing itself for the demands of Brexit.

It is easy to be sceptical about the very idea of evidence-based policy-making in an era of so-called ‘post-truth’ politics. And it’s not hard to characterise a lot of government activity as policy in search of evidence. Certainly, during my time in Whitehall, I witnessed instances of policy developed on the basis of conjecture and ideology, rather than evidence, and there’s little doubt some government activity is driven more by ministerial whim than data. However, despite this I remain optimistic about role of evidence in policy-making.

It is easy to be sceptical about the very idea of evidence-based policy-making in an era of so-called ‘post-truth’ politics. And it’s not hard to characterise a lot of government activity as policy in search of evidence. However, I remain optimistic.

The founding of the seven What Works centres was an important step in increasing the status of empirical research in the policy-making process. Their success, in combination with the contribution of fact-checking organisations like Full Fact, demonstrates to me that there is a strong and increasing desire for high-quality evidence to be at the heart of government’s decision-making process. I have seen an increase in both the quantity and quality of evidence being used in the policy-making process over recent years; and there are a number of current ministers with the kind of background – whether that’s an academic background in subjects such as economics or career experience in areas such as accountancy and finance – that means they want and expect analytically-informed argument to be at the heart of the advice they receive.

Of course, there is more to do to make sure policy is truly evidence-based. It is important that organisations such as EIF both support central and local government to make better decisions, and hold them to account when they fail to do so.

This role is crucial, for instance, in assessing the impact and potential knock-on effects of government spending decisions. Our analysis of the costs of late intervention – the high costs associated with acute services, such as hospitalisation or incarceration, required once a problem has reached crisis point or become entrenched in a young person’s life – highlights the potential ‘fiscal prize’ of investment in effective early intervention.

Yesterday’s autumn statement saw some loosening of fiscal austerity, with increased expenditure on infrastructure and some modest additional support for the JAMs –  the ‘Just About Managing’ group – that the prime minister, Theresa May, wants to put at the heart of this government’s agenda. But it is important to remember that local budgets remain under pressure, and so for many local decision-makers early intervention may seem hard to justify today, even if it will save money and improve outcomes tomorrow.

Nor can we afford to overlook the reason why we have a new government little more than a year after the 2015 general election. While the prime minister might wish to be seen as a social reformer, her legacy will be defined by her success in managing the UK’s exit from the European Union. This autumn statement made clear that Brexit will consume enormous amounts of the government and civil service’s time, energy and resources in the years ahead. This in turn will certainly limit how much Theresa May can do for the JAMs she seems so keen to help. It is important that the early intervention community works to keep improved social policy at the heart of the government’s agenda by making the moral and evidence-based case for supporting the most vulnerable, and championing the role of evidence in improving the lives of children.

This autumn statement made clear that Brexit will consume enormous amounts of the government and civil service’s time, energy and resources in the years ahead. It is important that the early intervention community works to keep improved social policy at the heart of the government’s agenda by making the moral and evidence-based case for supporting the most vulnerable.

This is a fascinating moment for me to have joined EIF, as its new director of evidence. My background is in applied research in the public sector: before joining the EIF I was head of strategic analysis at the Department for Education, where much of my work focussed on disadvantage and social mobility. Before that, I spent several years at the National Audit Office, designing evaluations of the work of central government. I believe those experiences will be highly applicable in this new role, bringing together aspects of national policy-making, rigorous evidence-building and local service provision as they apply to our mission to ensure children have the best possible start in life.

My predecessors Leon Feinstein and Leslie Gutman have built an excellent evidence team, one which has produced a range of high-quality research over recent years. And I have inherited an exciting programme of ongoing activity. Over the coming weeks and months, I plan to introduce myself to as many sections and corners of the early intervention community as I can, to better understand how EIF can work with you to improve outcomes for children.

About the author

Tom McBride

Tom is director of evidence at EIF.