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The evidence, policy and practice dynamic


26 Nov 2014

Four hundred or so analysts from the Department for Work and Pensions were gathered yesterday at their away day in Westminster Methodist Central Hall. So much expertise all in one place. This was a great opportunity to reflect on the interaction between evidence, policy and practice – a relationship that is at the core of EIF’s work.

What makes analysis influential in government?

There are three striking examples of influential analysis that I have been involved in my past and present work. First was Sure Start (now Children’s Centres) and the investment in early education for 3- and 4-year-olds.  The emphasis on evidence ran through this policy from its inception. The EPPSE (Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education) Project was a major investment in long-term evaluation led by Kathy Sylva, Edward Melhuish and colleagues at Oxford University.

But despite success in some areas, there were and remain challenges for implementation.  The US evidence on HighScope of a benefit cost impact of 7:1 was one of the inspirations for Sure Start. But it was a very different approach – a prescriptive programme targeted on a very poor group of children. The UK Sure Start programme was community driven, less prescriptive and not targeted by group.

Second, the Pensions Commission, which set about creating a political consensus on the future of pensions. The high-quality analysis was hugely influential in changing the terms of the debate, the scale of the problem, the need to think about the retirement age and the complexity of the current system. Above all it contained ‘killer facts’ about the scale of the problem.

The third example is closer to home: the Allen Reviews on Early Intervention in 2011.  The first review identified the programmes which had the strongest evidence base in improving children’s outcomes (some international, others from the UK). The review was significant in making a powerful case for prevention, its emphasis on social and emotional skills as an important driver of child and adult outcomes and its emphasis on the use of evidence to inform policy and practice.

Common features

These examples share common features. There was:

  • a big question to be answered
  • the issue was high on the political agenda
  • political and wider consensus
  • cross fertilisation between analysts and policy-makers inside and outside government
  • cutting-edge analysis.

Analysis requires those working in government to be connected not only with other government departments but with the analytical and policy community outside government. So I am all in favour of cross-fertilisation between the worlds of the civil service, think-tanks and academia.

A focus on prevention and early intervention – the opportunities and barriers

Prevention and early intervention is a common theme echoing across government – Simon Stevens, leading NHS England, made a powerful case for prevention and Early Intervention as a core theme running through the recently launched NHS Five Year Forward View. The shared approach expressed by politicians and policy makers is driven by strong evidence and the imperative of meeting growing needs at a time of increasing austerity.

So, what kind of analysis do we need to make prevention and early intervention the core of what we do?

We need:

  • better measures of drivers of behaviour that are not economically driven
  • a greater emphasis on measuring medium and long term outcomes
  • cross-cutting analysis between departments at national level and across agencies at local level
  • more extensive cost–benefit analysis of early intervention
  • better evidence of interim indicators that are predictive of later outcomes.

Taking a more holistic approach, we also need system reform which allows spending up front to save later. The Better Care Fund is a very important initiative in trying to work across sectors (health and social care) to move money away from acute services to prevention for older people; I’d be interested in what a parallel model might look like for children and young people.

If we are to turn the aspiration for early intervention and prevention into reality, we need not only for it to feature in party manifestos in the run-up to the general election, but for it to be a key theme in the Treasury’s next spending review.

About the author

Carey Oppenheim

Carey is an EIF associate and former chief executive.