Metro mayors can play a big role in expanding the evidence base of UK policy making

Simon Jeffrey

England’s new metro mayors have now been in office for eight months. As the first occupiers of the mayoralties, they’ve faced the double task of setting up their office and building relationships with their fellow Combined Authority leaders, on top of using their new powers and investment to drive growth and prosperity in their cities.

The formation of the new mayoral institutions – and the mayors’ initial steps in city region policy making – offer an important opportunity for innovation and experimental policy to tackle decades-old problems in some of our biggest cities. But it is equally important that the mayors make robust evaluation a central part of this experimentation from the start.

Devolution without evaluation will be a missed opportunity not just for the new administrations, who won’t truly know if their policies are working, but for other UK cities too. Some of the US’s most high-profile mayors – including Martin O’Malley and Michael Bloomberg, the former mayors of Baltimore and New York respectively – were famous for placing data and evaluation at the centre of their mayoralties. Now, the UK’s metro mayors have the chance to follow suit.

The lack of evidence to support UK policy making

The What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth has working with cities to design evaluations that will shed more light on what works, supported by data from Centre for Cities. To try and find the best policy-making tools for the job at hand, we scour journal articles databases, government reports and good old-fashioned Google to find any studies that reveal the effectiveness of different tools.

Unfortunately, however, every evidence review the WWC has published so far has revealed one reoccurring problem: the tiny number of studies that make the cut once we have applied our quality filter. Thousands of studies are either purely theoretical or don’t bear up to the scrutiny of reaching level 3 on the Maryland Scientific Methods Scale (control groups and before and after measurement). Only a few dozen at most survive and those include only a handful of UK studies.

This lack of quality evidence again highlights the opportunity that the new mayoralties present to sharpen up the UK evidence base, and the importance of ensuring this opportunity is not wasted.

Take the apprenticeships scheme, for example. Mayors will be looking to trial new approaches or implement best practice from other schemes. But of the 27 studies that had sufficient rigour to be included in the WWC review on this issue, only three from the UK, while 11 were from Germany. The German system of vocational training is rightly lauded across the world as something other countries could learn from. But its success is also dependent on a differently structured political economy, which makes the mutual incentives for workers and employers to invest in specialist skills especially strong. Realistically, evidence from Greater Manchester will be of much greater use to Newcastle than evidence from Gelsenkirchen.

Arguments by cities against the applicability of policies from other UK cities – such as the congestion charge, Workplace Parking Levy, or even of having an elected mayor – show that simply having more domestic data will not be enough to convince places of the merits of a particular policy. There needs to be a demand for data from places first.

But local economies prospering due to the innovation and expansion of well-designed, well-evaluated and successful policies should prick the attention of other cities, and provide the evidence they need to use these insights to in their own areas. It will also help local leaders spot bad policies from far off, before they consider adopting it in their place.

This blog is reposted from the Centre for Cities and What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth websites.