Open data not enough to ensure evidence-based policy, says new research

Alliance for Useful Evidence project says incentives will be needed to ensure policy takes account of evidence

By Jim Dunton

13 Apr 2016

Access to open data alone is not enough to encourage the take-up of evidence-based policymaking, according to new research.

A range of findings presented this week by an alliance of academics and government advisers says there should be better incentives to encourage the use of evidence — and suggests departments should publish a “red book” setting out the evidence base underpinning key decisions.

Detailed academic research from University College London’s Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre found that attempts to ensure the use of up-to-date evidence by decision-makers were “ineffective” unless they were accompanied by motivation-building techniques for targeted users.

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And it proposes measures including greater use of social media and tailored updates on the latest available data to ensure frontline staff and senior civil servants make the most of evidence.

The UCL study — “The Science of Using Science” — is part of a project set up by the Alliance for Useful Evidence (AUE), which includes the Wellcome Trust and the government-backed What Works Centre for Wellbeing.

At the launch of the AUE discussion paper "Using Evidence: What Works" this week, "Science of Using Science" co-author Laurenz Langer said it was clear that access to good research information alone was not enough, and that decision-makers also needed to be motivated to use the data.

“If we embed the decision-making processes, for example [via] the default website on the decision-maker’s computer, or by embedding the decision-making protocol with the database, we found this method was effective,” he said. “Access [to evidence] without motivation did not work.”

The UCL report said effective motivation-building techniques included personalised and targeted communication strategies, and straightforward online platforms. 

The Alliance for Useful Evidence’s paper meanwhile highlights the importance of UK bodies such as the Office for Budget Responsibility and the nine What Works centres, which include the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. 

But it says that existing organisations, including government departments, still need to improve the use of evidence in day-to-day decision-making.

The AUE’s report says the Cabinet Office-supported Evidence Transparency Framework, developed by the AUE and the Institute for Government, could have a role in “hardwiring” evidence into everyday policy decisions.

And it also points to a proposal from innovation foundation Nesta that would oblige policymakers to produce a “red book” providing evidence that supports policy decisions across social care, education and health.

"It’s not just about cranking a mechanistic handle"

Jane Elliott, chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council, said that as the availability of evidence increased, the quality of that evidence and the extent to which it was consumed in an informed manner would become increasingly important.

“We need to understand what the mechanisms are that will allow us to engage with people and ensure that they’re taking account of the evidence,” she said.

“We [also] have to take account of the fact that researchers and evidence producers are only one of the factors around the table. 

“They have a place at that table, but that political decision-making is part of the debate. It’s not just about cranking a mechanistic handle and saying ‘the evidence shows this’.”

"Using Evidence: What Works" also flags up the role of rewarding evidence-based innovation through professional recognition, and cited the Civil Service Awards — run by Civil Service World’s parent company Dods — as an example. 

It said visible methods of peer recognition had “a lot of potential to encourage the use of evidence, particularly if married to techniques like social marketing”.

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