Bridging the Gap: Evidence and Policy

08.05.2014 Blog

Recent years have seen a growth in the use of ‘evidence-based policy’, a movement which has grown out of the success of evidence based medicine, and healthcare research networks such as The Cochrane Collaboration. The idea is that social interventions will be far more effective if they are based on the most reliable academic research, which allows policy makers to pinpoint the most effective programs and replicate them. In order to provide a ‘bridging function’ between academics and policy makers, organisations have been established to collate and fund relevant research and also to make it easily accessible to policy makers. I recently conducted some research on these organisations, as part of Tepsie work on the ecosystem necessary to support social innovation.

One organisation that I looked at was The Campbell Collaboration, which was founded in 2000 as a sister organisation to Cochrane. It is an international research network hosted by the Norwegian Knowledge Centre for Health Sciences, and its mission is to ‘promote positive social change, by contributing to better-informed decisions and better-quality public and private services around the world”. Campbell prepares and disseminates systematic reviews of social science evidence in four interlinked fields: education, criminal justice, social welfare and international development. So far about one hundred reviews have been published, and a similar number are in progress.

Eamonn Noonan, executive director of the Collaboration, commented that “while Cochrane publishes many more reviews in medicine, this is a respectable number given the fields that we work in – fifty reviews on policing will capture many of the big issues in policing”. Recent review topics have included: ‘Restorative Justice Conferencing: Using Face-to-Face Meetings of Offenders and Victims: Effects on Offender Recidivism and Victim Satisfaction’ and ‘Educational and Skills-Based Interventions for Preventing Relationship and Dating Violence in Adolescents and Young Adults’.

The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab has similar objectives to the Campbell Collaboration, however its main area of interest is poverty alleviation. It has 92 affiliated professors who conduct rigorous evaluations of anti-poverty policies around the world in developed and developing countries, using randomised control trials. These are types of impact evaluations that use random assignment to allocate resources, run programs or apply policies as part of the study design. The main purpose of randomised evaluations is to determine whether a program has an impact, and more specifically, to quantify how large that impact is. J-PAL also has a team who liaise with policy makers to ensure that their research is reaching the right people, and another team who work on capacity building to spread the skills needed to conduct and understand randomised control trials.

J-PAL Europe was established in May 2007 to expand J-PAL’s advocacy work in Europe, and include European researchers in the J-PAL network. It is based at the Paris School of Economics and has just launched the SPARK network, or ‘Social Policy Analysis for Robust Knowledge’ in partnership with LSE Enterprise and Nesta. As part of SPARK, information and training sessions will be held for policy makers, support will be given in undertaking social policy research, and a network of stakeholders will be created.  Claire Walsh commented, “policy change doesn’t just come when results come in, you have to offer long-term support if you actually want policy to be changed in the end”. The SPARK network is part of a larger initiative from the EU Directorate General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion to promote the benefits of social policy experimentation throughout the EU as a tool for social innovation.

It is clear that using evidence to inform policy is an approach that is here to stay, and one that has great promise in terms of scaling successful social interventions. Although the organisations profiled above were established independently of government, the UK is currently funding a network of ‘What Works’ centres to help inform government policy. These are in the fields of crime reduction, active and independent ageing, early intervention, educational attainment and local economic growth. These centres are the first example of a government taking steps to prioritise evidence-informed policy through a national approach, and it is likely that we will see much more of this kind of activity in years to come.

Photograph: Fred Zivacco, Participants in a J-PAL Europe capacity building course