How can evidence-based policy help in disadvantaged places?
In this blog, Henry Overman – Principal Investigator of the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth – outlines some of its work around socially excluded communities. This blog was originally posted on the Centre’s website.
We are very pleased to have launched our collaborative work on disadvantaged places.
This project looks in depth at policy, and the use of evidence, in places in the UK that are most disadvantaged, sometimes referred to as ‘left behind’. These places have high proportions of vulnerable people with complex needs for support. They also have low levels of economic activity. This compounds their problems, as unemployment, poverty, mental illness, and poor health often go hand in hand.
Councils have also experienced deep cuts to their budgets in recent years. For example, Wakefield, one of our partners on the project, has had their budget cut by 30% since 2009. We found that, during our visits to Wakefield and Grimsby, local authority staff as well as third party organisations are struggling to meet the needs of their most impoverished populations with their own resources dwindling.
In these places, improving the cost-effectiveness of policies is more important than ever. This project, joint with other members of the What Works Network, focused on how the better use of evidence might help.
One response to these challenges might be to argue that organisations such as ours do the job for them. Having reviewed the evidence across the What Works centres, why don’t we just provide areas with a recipe that they can follow?
Our experience in this project suggests that such an approach simply won’t work. The evidence base cannot tell us what the most cost-effective approach will be when needs are complex and we have multiple ways of addressing a given challenge. Take a specific example of a single parent who is long term unemployed and suffering from depression. Is the cost-effective intervention to start with a mental health intervention to help address their depression? Or should we focus on better child-care to help them get a job, thereby relieving their worries about income and helping them tackle their depression this way? Or perhaps the problem is with a disruptive child and the most cost-effective intervention tackles the problems the child is facing?
Collaborating with our What Works colleagues representing ageing (Centre for Ageing Better) health (NICE), policing (College of Policing), education (EEF), early intervention (EIF), and wellbeing (What Works Centre for Wellbeing) allowed us to better understand how these different professional approaches can work together to prioritise interventions.
The problems of these places have been generations in the making, and are driven by geography, history, and global economic trends. There are no easy solutions, and we need to be realistic about that. Advice based on major upheavals to approaches, reorganising structures, or fundamentally changing ways of working will be impractical given the workload that councils are already coping with.
We do, however, believe that it is essential that precious resources are not squandered on policies which will not make things better. Wherever possible places should be implementing policies with evidence suggesting they will work.
This report provides some easy-to-implement steps to help places better use the available evidence to help ensure that scarce resources are spent in ways that are most likely to produce good results.
While we don’t think we can tell places exactly what policies to implement to tackle the challenges they face, we do feel we can provide guidance on how to develop those policies. We hope these suggestions are helpful.