What Danny Alexander should have said at the “What Works” launch

5 March 2013

Evidence-based policy making took a significant step forward on 4 March with the announcement of four more “what works” centres to join NICE and the Education Endowment Foundation. At the launch, fronted by Danny Alexander and Oliver Letwin, the right points were made about the need to base policy on good evidence. But the announcement was weak on measures to address the gap our work identified on demand.

This is what the chief secretary to the Treasury should have said in his opening remarks:

“We face a prolonged period of fiscal austerity. The Treasury will no longer be prepared to finance policies which are not demonstrably working – nor can we underwrite speculative policies which are not supported by a reasonable evidence base.

That is why we are proposing to work very closely with the new centres we have announced today. There is no point funding an increase in the supply of good quality evidence into government, if it is not hardwired into the policy process. The Treasury has a critical role to play in making that link. So, as soon as the centres are established, we will be asking them to look across the board and tell us where current spending programmes are failing to produce hoped for results: what is not working. Those programmes which are failing to deliver will be cut back – or substantially reformed.

We will ask the “what works” centres to give independent assessments on the quality of the evidence base underlying departmental spending submissions before we start negotiating.

And for any new policy initiative we will ensure that there is a proper feedback and evaluation plan, agreed with the relevant what works centre, so that we can see whether the policy is delivering the desired results.

That will be in addition to the helpful guidance they will be providing to local commissioners and practitioners.

We realise that that alone will not be enough to improve the quality of policy making in government. Many policy positions are developed in opposition, with few resources – and then implemented rapidly as soon as the transfer of power takes place. That costs us all, as taxpayers, as service users and as citizens. So we will allow the opposition parties, in the two years before an election, to seek private advice from the works centres on the areas of policy they are developing.

Parliament also has an important role to play in holding government properly to account for the way it makes policy. So the “what works” centres will be able to help select committees and public bill committees when they scrutinise policy and legislation.

The Treasury has in the past been more interested in the quantity of public expenditure than in its quality. Today, the Treasury has put itself at the head of the drive to ensure that we get the best results for every pound we spend. This will be as big a change in the way we approach public spending decisions as the introduction of cash limits in the late 1970s.”

Of course, if he had said that, the Chief Executive of the ESRC might not have been able to make so much of the independence of the centres. But while independence matters, another “I” word matters more: these bodies need to be indispensable parts of the policy process – as NICE is. Otherwise they risk being nice irrelevancies.

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