Issue 8: January 2014

EVIDENCE EXCHANGE: SHARING SOCIAL POLICY LESSONS BETWEEN NEIGHBOURS

By Jim McCormick, Scotland Adviser, Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Almost 15 years since devolution began, various examples of policy divergence have occurred in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. These have been a result of conscious choices, as well as sticking with policies which Westminster governments have decided to change in England. The pros and cons are debated and compared increasingly with approaches in Europe and beyond. But there has been little in the way of thoughtful dialogue on social policy and practice across the UK. Evidence tends to stay within policy silos and within countries. To date, it has failed to travel well between near neighbours which face common issues, as well as having distinct challenges, regardless of their current or future constitutional status.

Respondents appear to distinguish between the evidence they use (or know is available) which may involve a sifting process for relevance/credibility and the much wider, un-sifted body of evidence (and the associated risk of drowning in a sea of spurious information).

The Evidence Exchange project led by Carnegie UK Trust with support from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation set out to explore demand for better evidence sharing. Almost 500 respondents took part in an on-line survey in 2013, with a skew towards those with a particular interest in social policy and working in the devolved countries. More than one-third are based in or cover Scotland. A picture emerges of practitioners who attach a great deal of weight to using evidence in their work – and two-thirds said this had become more important in recent times.

Which channels and sources are used to find evidence?

On-line search and print/broadcast news are the most frequently-used, followed by engaging with professional networks and reading sector/trade news. Just under half are frequent social media users (mainly Twitter). Those working in Scotland are least likely to attend conferences/seminars outside their own jurisdiction – almost 60% of respondents say they rarely or never do this.

A clear majority are frequent users of evidence produced by governments and their agencies (both devolved and UK administrations). Even accounting for the Celtic bias in the survey, a majority of respondents in England report at least occasional use of evidence from the devolved governments. The survey doesn’t support the notion that users of social policy evidence are ignoring the multiple layers of governance across the UK. But fewer than half of Scottish respondents are frequent users of UK government sources, almost one-quarter less than using Scottish Government evidence, producing a much bigger gap than in Wales or Northern Ireland. Otherwise, the first table shows relatively small differences between Scottish respondents and UK respondents overall. The third sector is a frequently-used source by almost half, with about a third turning often to universities, think-tanks and local authorities. 

Use and trust: Scotland respondents (UK respondents overall in brackets – both %)

How do these sources fare in terms of trust?

The Scottish Government and its agencies score highly: two-thirds say they usually or always trust this evidence, just above the UK Government. Universities rank highest of all, but more than twice as many respondents express a high degree of trust in universities as draw upon them frequently. The UK Government and independent research funders also score higher on trust than in attracting frequent users.

With the establishment of What Works Scotland planned for June 2014, alongside a network of other What Works centres, the time seems right to improve dialogue on policy and practice learning between neighbours.

If highly-trusted sources are only consulted occasionally, or if a less reliable source is used more often, evidence providers can act to improve ease of access and practitioners can improve the time and effort involved in searching out evidence to meet their needs. Meanwhile, three-quarters agreed that evidence is “often interesting but not very practical”. Respondents appear to distinguish between the evidence they use (or know is available) which may involve a sifting process for relevance/credibility and the much wider, un-sifted body of evidence (and the associated risk of drowning in a sea of spurious information). 

Looking outwards, do practitioners want to know more about social policy evidence in other parts of the UK?

Four in ten express a great deal of interest in learning about evidence from their peers in other parts of the UK. This rises to half of those whose work spans cross-country, whole-UK or beyond the UK. Not surprisingly, this is less than the proportion who want to learn more about evidence relevant to their own sector in Scotland but still indicates a sizeable element of latent demand. And it’s more than the number keen to learn about other European countries and the rest of the world. At the other end of the scale, about 12% say they have little or no interest in accessing more evidence at any level. They emphasise the current volume of evidence, the effort involved in sifting it for the relevant ‘nuggets’ or they call for better quality evidence rather than more of it. Finally, are there any important differences in this regard across the UK? Appetites appear to be strongest in Wales and Yorkshire, with Scotland expressing average levels of interest.

Extent of interest in learning: Scotland respondents (UK respondents overall in brackets – both %)

The report points to clear interest in sharing evidence across the UK, on a wider and deeper basis. With the establishment of What Works Scotland planned for  June 2014, alongside a network of other What Works centres, the time seems right to improve dialogue on policy and practice learning between neighbours. The next step for Carnegie UK Trust and JRF is to support an Evidence Exchange programme to test out the most effective way of doing it.

Jim McCormick, Scotland Adviser to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is author of the Evidence Exchange report which can be downloaded here.

By Jim McCormick, Scotland Adviser, Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Issue 8: January 2014

Issue 8: January 2014

SMART CITIES: SMART SERVICES: SMART WORKING

Smart Cities: Smart Services: Smart Working Editorial

In focusing on 'Smart Cities' let's start with a few teaser questions (answers at the foot of this column)...

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