I was recently asked at a conference entitled “Crisis for Youth” whether enough was being done to ensure that public money on services for young people is spent as effectively as possible. The question was clearly a leading one. But how do we best demonstrate impact and make the case for funding services that really make a difference?
Just last month at Davos, Bill Gates added his voice in the Wall Street Journal to the call for more impact evaluation, claiming that “the solution to the world’s biggest problems is to measure them.” Evidence-based policy has been a stated aim for years here in the UK. However, whilst demonstrably common in the NHS, have we really made as much progress as we need to using measurement tools in social policy, and in the provision of wider public services?
Last year in their report “Test, learn, adapt” the Cabinet Office set an agenda for a new philosophy of public policy development through judicious use of randomised control trials. Importantly, and as also discussed in a recent Young Foundation seminar with Jeremy Hardie, the report points to instances where evaluations have been less than rigorous as well as the pitfalls of RCTs. However when it comes down to it, we simply cannot afford to have services that are ineffective in our current age of austerity. More to the point, services themselves can no longer expect to attract funding if they can’t make a business case for investment. As Gates suggests, measurement and evidence gathering are key to solving social policy problems.
Here at The Young Foundation we are supporting this important agenda in many areas of our work. But we know that it’s not just about policy, it’s about changing attitudes and working practices: call it “evidence-based thinking.”
We are involved in an exciting learning project as part of the Big Lottery-funded Realising Ambition Consortium, in which we are supporting 22 organisations to replicate evidence-based approaches to helping young people avoid pathways to offending. This has huge potential to inform our understanding of how to grow and scale evidence-based practice. Working alongside the organisations, we are using our Organisational Health Scorecard to capture and review how ready they are to replicate successful interventions. The evidence captured is helping them become more systematic, learning organisations.
Another area where we are encouraging evidence-based thinking is through the Department of Education-funded Catalyst Consortium. Recently we have worked intensively with three voluntary sector youth organisations, helping them to clarify the outcomes they achieve for young people, and mapping out a theory of change for how what they do leads to these intended outcomes. We’ve had impressive results. Those involved found the process challenging, but also a way of reigniting their passion for, and commitment to, their work.
So what can we conclude from all of this? A lot of the change that is needed in social policy and practice is going to require a fundamental shift in thinking to one where organisations are crystal clear in their mission, truly value evidence and are fluent in a new scientific language. We believe, and have already seen, that those up for the challenge will be more likely to make the case for resources and fulfil their mission in an increasingly competitive funding climate.