Ex cab sec Gus O'Donnell laments difficulty of evidence-based policymaking

Civil service policy profession chief Chris Wormald credited with interest in pledge to boost evidence base for decisions

Lord Gus O'Donnell speaking at the launch of the declaration on evidence for public policy. Photo: Alliance for Useful Evidence

By Richard Johnstone

08 Nov 2017

Former cabinet secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell has said that “billions of pounds” are spent every year on social policies and programmes without evidence on the effectiveness of these interventions.

Speaking at the launch of a new declaration on evidence for public policy, which has been signed by organisations across the public sector, O’Donnell, who was cabinet secretary and head of the civil service from 2005 to 2011, said that “good evidence is the backbone of good scrutiny”.

However, he said that there was difficulty in getting policy to reflect evidence.


“The idea that policy and practice should be underpinned by rigorous evidence is internationally accepted, yet billions of pounds are spent every year on social policies and programmes with little rigorous evidence on the impacts of these initiatives,” he said. “And despite decades of producing excellent research we still encounter problems of getting this integrated into decision-making across all areas of social policy and practice."

He stated that the creation of a declaration on evidence could help ensure that research is commissioned and carried out.

It has been developed by Alliance for Useful Evidence and professor Jonathan Shepherd of the Royal College of Surgeons and Cardiff University, and was yesterday signed by the College of Policing, Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and The Chartered College of Teaching.

The declaration stated: “Evidence of what works and what doesn’t has become, through formal trial and error across all professions and public services, a foundation of professional practice. Equally, many untested interventions can do more harm than good and are wasteful of public and private resource.

“Therefore, Medical Royal Colleges, the College of Policing and the Chartered College of Teaching as leaders of our professions, declare that our institutions expect all members to take full account of evidence and evidence informed guidance in their daily decisions and advice to individuals and organisations.

“Further, because potential new policies and interventions need to be tested for effectiveness and cost benefit, we also declare that our institutions expect and will support rigorous evaluation.

“To these ends we undertake to ensure that these principles are reflected as appropriate in our respective values, constitutions or conditions of membership.”

Speaking to CSW, Shepherd said there had been interest in the declaration as it was being developed from both Chris Wormald, the Department of Health permanent secretary, as head of the government policy profession, and Sir David Ramsden, the former head of the economics profession in government who left in September to become deputy governor of markets and banking at the Bank of England.

“This is as relevant for them and other professional groups in the civil service as it is for practitioners,” he said. “Professionals work in the civil service in various special areas just as they do in obstetrics and gynaecology or the police or in schools,” he said.

What he called the “what works movement” had gained traction across government, and there was now more reliable evidence for interventions, he said. Possible further signatories to the pledge “are being discussed”, and he urged professions across the civil service to get involved. “It is relevant to all of them. As soon as they're a specialist group of expertise who are dealing in a particular professional discipline, like policy or economics, then evidence-based policy is hugely important.”

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