A hunger for evidence, and the benefits of a virtual team: the 2014 Analysis and Use of Evidence winners

Written by Sarah Aston on 9 May 2018

As winners of the Analysis and Use of Evidence Award at the 2014 Civil Service Awards, DfID’s Humanitarian Innovation and Evidence Programme is at the forefront of Whitehall’s shift towards evidence-based policy. Sarah Aston meets team leader Dr Joanna Macrae

The Humanitarian Innovation and Evidence Programme won the Analysis and Use of Evidence Award for putting “evidence at the heart of the decision-making process”. When was this approach introduced?

In 2010 the new government carried out a major review of the UK’s response mechanisms for humanitarian emergencies. Conducted by former Lib Dem leader Lord Ashdown, the Humanitarian Emergency Response Review (HERR) called for increased investment in research and innovation in the humanitarian sector so the UK could respond in the best possible way to future emergencies. 

At the time, there was a real sense that the nature of humanitarian crises [was] changing very quickly, with new problems emerging and the scale of humanitarian needs increasing. In the context of that pressure on resources, it was really important for us to focus on where we could make the most difference. That means knowing what works and, importantly, what doesn’t. 

The humanitarian sector hasn’t been brilliant at investing in innovation – or in evidence – about what works, and HERR said it was about time we did. It was on that basis that we were able to set up the Humanitarian Innovation and Evidence Programme. 

How did you feel when you won the Civil Service Award?

We were absolutely thrilled. I was at the World Humanitarian Summit when I heard, and I was delighted. It was a real treat. Of course, we think our work is special and important, but it was great to get that recognition.

What do you think makes the project stand out? 

Often when governments invest in research, it isn’t very embedded in operations. 

What makes this DfID project different is that it’s a collaboration between our research department, our humanitarian policy department and our Africa regional department, which is one of our biggest humanitarian spenders. That means we have to have the discipline of satisfying three criteria around research excellence, policy relevance and operational relevance. 

We hope that our impact will be greater because we’ve got the potential users of all of this information embedded in the programme and invested in it. It also means we can access extraordinary expertise across the organisation. 

Has your ability to respond to crises improved as a result of the programme? 

The annoying thing about research and innovation is that it’s quite slow. It takes a bit of time, so we are very much in the early phases. But we are [seeing] an increased hunger for evidence in decision-making, and a recognition that it’s important to invest in building that evidence base.

For example, we’ve managed to move the Wellcome Trust and the Economic and Social Research Council from a position where they had no investment in building the humanitarian evidence base, to ensuring they will have contributed about £5m of investment. 

We are also seeing organisations investing in more innovative products. One example is in Haiti. The [International] Federation of the Red Cross developed a new way of using voice recognition software in mobile phones to allow humanitarian organisations to get important information about health – including on water sanitation or controlling the spread of infectious disease – to the population. Until now, the Red Cross relied on text messaging, which is great if you’re literate. But by introducing a system that lets users hear automated advice rather than having to read it, the Red Cross enabled illiterate people to communicate and access those messages. 

Your team is scattered all over the world and a lot of your communication is done online. How has leading a virtual team contributed to the success of the project?

Virtual teams have a bit of a poor reputation but my experience has been fantastic. There is no way I could have established a team which has a nutritionist, an epidemiologist, a social scientist and so on [in London]. What I’ve been able to do is to access little pieces of a lot of people’s time, and that means we have an incredibly rich range of expertise both on the technical side and on the administrative side, which has enabled us to develop such a large programme in such a short period of time.

I do think there are particular challenges, but a virtual team can be an efficient way of delivering quite complex results. What we’re trying to do is complicated. It requires multidisciplinary working across different countries, and building up a network of partnerships which are very diverse. I do think it would’ve been very hard to deliver that with a conventional team.

What can other departments learn from DfID’s evidence-based approach?

It sounds obvious but it’s really important to make sure you’re asking the right questions. Ask questions that are important to people now because that’s the way you get buy-in. And keep a sharp eye on what’s going to come next.

You also need to strike a balance between the projects that have an obvious benefit and those that require more investigation and evidence. You have to think about the things people don’t know yet but will need to know about. 

Also, try to engage a very wide group of people to help make sure you ask the right questions, and give people information in the right form across a range of different channels. For example, we’ve been working in partnership with Oxfam because they’ve got extensive experience in talking to field practitioners. It’s thinking very carefully about your audience and your eventual impact.

What are your next goals for the project?

A lot of the last two years has been about programme design, and we’ve gone through quite a complicated process of commissioning large pieces of work and developing partnerships. In the next 6-18 months we should see a shift from a trickle of results to, if not a flood, then a significant increase of results. We need to manage those results to make sure we’re having the best impact. That means working those networks to make sure the results are understood and communicated, and building on our experience to advocate more broadly within the community. 

The Civil Service Awards Community is a new section on Civil Service World that aims to celebrate past winners, inspire people to nominate in 2018, and help us all to learn from good practice. If you’ve ever won or been shortlisted for an award, register your interest to hear about future events and projects for awards alumni