Academic whose research led to What Works Network calls for independent review

Review call comes as former cabinet secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell says progress on What Works Centres has stalled
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The Cabinet Office should commission an independent review of the What Works Network, as part of a raft of measures to bolster evidence-based policymaking, the academic whose research led to the network’s creation has said.

Jonathan Shepherd, a surgeon who has been the independent member of the Cabinet Office What Works Council since 2013, said the National Audit Office or another “suitable external organisation” should also devise  a quality assurance framework for the network.

These steps are two of several recommendations in a report published by Shepherd, a professor in Cardiff University’s Crime and Security Research Institute, looking at how to make better use of what he called the “evidence ecosystem” – evidence gathering and synthesis, guidance derived from this synthesis, and services able to respond to guidance quickly – to improve public services.

“Public service effectiveness and efficiency depend in large part on their foundations of the best evidence available, expert synthesis of this evidence, the guidance and quality standards derived from this synthesis, and the ability of services to respond to guidance quickly,” Shepherd wrote.

“Weak foundations in these areas mean that opportunities to improve services and minimise waste will be missed and that interventions which do more harm than good will be retained.

He said during the efficient use of public resources has become more important than ever as Covid-19 hits global economies.

And during the pandemic, scientific evidence, synthesis and the resulting guidance for ministers and officials have “established themselves steadily more securely as a basis for decisions”.

“This process has been subject to continuous public and professional scrutiny and has not just survived but is now seen as crucial to decision making by governments and by front line practitioners. It is now time to ensure that this process is robust in a public services context,” Shepherd said.

Ensuring this can happen means “every link in the evidence chain needs to be strong”, he added.

The What Works Centres have played an important role in generating and synthesising evidence on the effectiveness and cost benefit of public service in specific policy areas since being set up by the Cabinet Office in 2013. There are 10 centres, covering areas such as wellbeing, local economic growth and children’s social care, and they are estimated to cover more than £250bn of public expenditure annually.

The rapid expansion of the network has created challenges, however – at the moment there is “no common currency for ways in which evidence is generated and synthesised”, according to Shepherd. Nor is there a recommended quality-assurance mechanism aside from peer review and prioritising “high quality impact evaluations through a robust system for ranking evidence”.

An independent, external review of the network would therefore be "helpful", Shepherd said. He noted that the only major review so far has been carried out by the network itself, and so a review by the NAO or another relevant body "would be the first comprehensive external appraisal" of What Works centres.

To further address these challenges, Shepherd has proposed the centres use IMPACT principles – meaning they should be independent, methodologically rigorous; practical; accessible; capacity-building; and transparent.

And the way centres synthesise evidence and produce guidance should be standardised to “increase guidance quality, simplify an overly complex evidence ecosystem, and build bridges which would accelerate public service improvement”.

Other recommendations in the report include suggesting the What Works Centres develop formal relationships with service regulators and professional bodies in their areas of expertise, to encourage public bodies to take expert guidance on board.

“At a time when effective public services and the efficient use of public resource have never been more important, this action is needed to ensure that the methods for finding out, promoting and adopting what works best and what represents best value are clear, and used,” Shepherd said.

Gus O’Donnell, who was cabinet secretary from 2005 to 2011, said he backed Shepherd’s call for a review of the network.

“The development of the What Works Centres is really important but it’s kind of stalled. I would say if [Cabinet Office minister] Michael Gove wants to back up anything he said in his Ditchley speech, to prove that it wasn’t just words, he should really be expanding the What Works Centres,” he told CSW.

In the June speech on civil service reform, Gove spoke about the importance of evidence-based policymaking, saying there were "precious few government-sponsored or owned sources of reliable evidence on what works"

“Outside bodies help to improve the quality of government and the quality of evidence [it uses],” Lord O’Donnell added. The network could provide useful evidence to support economic policymaking, for example, he said – especially where new taxes are needed, which can spell “political death” for ministers.

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