Beyond the Airport Lounge – How to Share Research on What Works across the UK

It’s daft to go hunting for policy innovations only in the US or Europe, and not learn from our own neighbours on these small UK islands. Politicians are more likely to look overseas for models, and not look closer to home.

And if we do learn from Edinburgh, Belfast or London, we do it in a haphazard way.  I was told by a Northern Ireland official from the Atlantic Philanthropies charity that he got more policy-learning by bumping into UK colleagues in the airport lounge ahead of international conferences in Scandianvia or Chicago.

As well as the hefty carbon footprint, surely we can find easier ways of learning about what policies have worked (and what has not)?

I’m not alone in wanting to find out more. 41% of policy makes have a ‘great deal’ of interest in drawing upon more evidence from peers in the UK, according to a study Evidence Exchange by Carnegie UK Trust and Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

But worryingly, very few know what is going on in other jurisdictions. Only 20%  report they know a great deal about their sector elsewhere in the UK.

A new project called Evidence Exchange run by the Alliance for Useful Evidence has been set up to address the gap and try out different approaches to learning across the four countries. Clearly more international conferences in Chicago are not the answer. So what sort of real-word techniques might work best?

Digital solutions must be part of the solution.   Skype, Google Hangouts and social media are well worn tools.  Facebook has announced its late leap on to the professional networking bandwagon, taking on the likes of LinkedIn and Yammer. These can be adapted for the public and charity sectors.  Mainstream news media is also common source of learning, but is not always good on representing research on social policy in a balanced way. The news website The Conversation UK is bypassing the usual media outlets by letting academic experts write directly on topical issues.

We should use what’s already out there. Avoid the temptation to create yet another digital forum or aggregating hubs. Beware Portal Proliferation Syndrome, the common malaise of big funders to hoover up all their evidence in one web place. A place nobody ends up using.  Across Europe, there are digital social innovations for social impact that we can tap into. We must keep trying things out.

There’s probably no getting away from real-live physical meetings.  But this involves significant challenges of geography. It is hard to do ‘at scale’: there are around 450,000 civil servants stretched from every corner of these islands.

The quality of the evidence shared is also vital.  Shared anecdotes and case studies have their place, but we need to see if there are evaluations and strong research findings to help replicate and make it big. Charities such as Nesta, Project Oracle and Early Intervention Foundation have formal standards of evidence to help us think about what might be appropriate evidence to learn from.  Not all evidence is equal. And not all evidence is relevant to your particular policy headache.  Nesta uses the standards below to help with its impact investment fund:

Standards of Evidence

There are no easy answers to sharing evidence across the UK. Particularly if it’s not just about learning from a whole country, like Wales, but small communities in, say, the Valleys. How on earth do we share information and evidence from local areas to all parts of the UK?  But it doesn’t feel good enough to me to leave this all to chance – and to only learn from fellow policymakers at random meetings in airport lounges.  A more deliberate and sustained attempt to share evidence for smarter policymaking and the best possible public services we can find.


About the author: Jonathan Breckon is the head of the Alliance for Useful Evidence@A4UEvidence

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