New evidence centres will help to “upgrade” civil service policy making, claims Cavendish

A new network of research centres providing independent evidence to inform decision making in key policy areas will help to improve policy making in the civil service, according to Will Cavendish, executive director of the Cabinet Office's implementation unit.

By Suzannah.Brecknell

04 Mar 2013

Speaking at the launch today of the What Works Network (WWN), Cavendish (pictured above centre) told CSW that the independent centres which will make up the network should not be seen as replacing any aspect of civil service advice to government, but rather should be seen as an “upgrade in capacity”, allowing policy professionals and ministers to access better evidence to inform decisions.

The WWN will consist of two existing research centres - the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) and the Educational Endowment Foundation - plus four new independent institutions which focus on collating, assessing and disseminating evidence on promoting local economic growth, supporting an ageing population, early intervention for vulnerable families and children, and crime reduction.

Cavendish said the announcement, which fulfills a commitment to investigate a “NICE for social policy”, set out in the Civil Service Reform Plan last June, is part of work to create “an improving civil service” and that work will also be needed to improve the skills of civil servants to understand and use the evidence provided.

The centres looking at tackling crime, early intervention and local economic growth are being funded by central government departments and Economic and Social Research Council, while the centre focusing on issues around an ageing population will be funded by central government and the Big Lottery Fund.

Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury, said at the launch of these centres that they would improve decision making in policy areas that cover around £2bn of discretionary public spending. He added that he hoped the centres would help to improve joined-up working across departments.

He said there is good evidence on “what works” in some parts of government but “quite a lot of that evidence is stuck within departmental silos and a lot of the problems that we're dealing with at the moment tend to be things which cross two, three or four different government departments.”

“One of the valuable things that this initiative can add is that cross cutting understanding,” he continued, of which initiatives are effective across policy areas, to “build a better sense of how you can drive savings”.

Many civil servants are sceptical about the benefits of these institutions, according to research into civil servants' opinions of commitments set out in the Civil Service Reform Plan, carried out by CSW last year.

The survey asked civil servants their thoughts about the commitment to establish “an institute that can test and trial approaches and assess what works in major social policy areas.” Only 13 per cent of respondents said “the research produced could be of huge value, strengthening evidence-based policymaking”; the most popular answers where that such research could be “is unlikely to win out when it conflicts with ministers’ prejudices about effective policies” (chosen by 39 per cent) or that “at a time of falling budgets this is a questionable way to spend money” (20 per cent); a further ten per cent worried that lessons would not be transferable.

Read the full survey results.

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