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Given the diversity of approaches to creating evidence described in the previous chapter, an evident challenge is the need for a broadly shared understanding about what forms of evidence provide useful, legitimate or even compelling underpinnings for policy and practice. Yet reaching a workable consensus on appropriate ways of identifying and labelling good evidence is far from straightforward. In this chapter we consider some of the main ways in which evidence-promoting organisations have responded to this challenge, discussing examples of the different evidence standards that have emerged and commenting on their relative merits and implications.

The introduction to Section Three argued that it is appropriate to pay particular attention to research-based evidence when considering these issues, and many promoters of evidence do indeed place research at the centre of their deliberations. This privileging of research is due in part to the transparency and scrutiny that comes from the requirement that research studies should be explicit about their methods and must undergo rigorous peer review. Following on from this, Chapter Ten explored various approaches to gathering and analysing data, many but not all of which may come under the rubric of ‘research’, and concluded that there is often a need to combine a range of methodologies to answer the many interconnected questions that arise with policy makers and practitioners. However, combining evidence from different sources and different methodological approaches adds another layer of complexity and can be contentious – particularly when the aim is to make an overall judgement on the quality and strength of evidence in support of a novel proposition (such as a policy prescription or a practice innovation).

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This book is a revisiting of the evolution of the evidence agenda over the past two decades. In 2000 we published the first comprehensive cross-sectoral review of the burgeoning activity around evidence (Davies et al, 2000), and this revealed a fascinating diversity of practices, tensions and debates, but also many overlaps and convergences of concern. In 2007 we developed a more focused review of strategies for increasing the use and influence of evidence (Nutley et al, 2007), paying particular attention to research-based knowledge, seeing this as the area most in need of illumination (a view reinforced by this current collection). The intervening years have done nothing to lessen our interest in these concerns, or to dim our view that the use of evidence of all kinds, but especially research-based knowledge, is deserving of intense study.

The political and economic context has shifted considerably since the previous volumes were published, with implications for the debate about the role of evidence in policy and practice. There is now much talk of a post-truth world – highlighted by the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in the US in 2016, and also by the UK’s EU membership referendum campaign of the same year (Brexit). Both these events may be seen to align with other global moves towards populist ideologies, and both Trump and those campaigning for the UK to leave the EU belittled the role of experts – the Conservative MP Michael Gove most famously so (‘people in this country have had enough of experts’).

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The relationship between evidence and policy is far from straightforward. Perspectives range from the idealism of ‘evidence-driven policy making’ (where evidence sets the agenda and drives policy choices) to the pessimism of ‘policy-based evidence’ (where evidence is sought simply to legitimise pre-set policies). Viewing the evidence and policy relationship from either of these extremes tends to result in disillusionment: either the reality does not live up to the ideal, or evidence is considered as essentially tainted and self-serving. This chapter steers a course between these extremes by drawing on political science and policy studies to provide a more nuanced and pragmatic understanding of the relationship.

It begins with an account of idealised perspectives, and contrasts these with how things play out more typically. Idealised views tend to posit a combination of comprehensive rationality, in which policy makers can process all evidence and make consistent choices, within a policy cycle characterised by a series of well-delineated stages (Box 2.1). Policy scholars usually describe these idealised conditions to show how policy making does not really work. Instead, policy makers more typically face ‘bounded rationality’, and they respond by using rational and irrational short cuts to process information. They do so in complex policy environments that usually bear little resemblance to any idealised policy cycle.

With these points in mind, the chapter then turns to an overview of policy studies theories and concepts that help to describe and explain the complexity of real-world, policy-related activities (see Box 2.2 for a summary of some key concepts and terms).

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The opening two decades of the 21st century can arguably be characterised as a period of continued technocratic consensus about the need for a better articulation between evidence and public services, alongside rising contestation about how that relationship should be realised. This has been accompanied by an increase in the range of data that are amenable to analysis, synthesis and use (see Chapter Ten) and a broadening of notions of evidence that are seen as legitimate (see Chapter Eleven). At the same time, however, there has been some disillusionment – itself informed by a growing body of knowledge – about the feasibility of a straightforward path from evidence generation, through policy formation (the challenges of which are articulated in Chapter Two) and into implementation in service delivery (the focus of this chapter).

We explore these developments with a particular emphasis on evidence-informed service delivery. First, we describe traditional ‘top-down’ approaches to the dissemination and implementation of evidence. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, these approaches remain important in many public services, backed by sometimes rigid and powerful regimes of audit, inspection and rating. However, their limitations are increasingly acknowledged, and the second section outlines critiques of such approaches and describes ‘bottom-up’ alternatives that rely on more localised evidence generation and utilisation, often with a view to incorporating wider forms of knowledge. In the third and fourth sections we consider approaches to the sharing of knowledge and evidence within and across public service organisations, and the challenges in so doing, and then highlight a number of cross-cutting challenges to the use of evidence in service delivery.

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Policy makers and practitioners have many questions about what they do and how it could be improved. They also have many different sources of evidence, as well as other forms of data, information and knowledge at their disposal to inform these questions. This chapter outlines some of the challenges faced by policy makers and practitioners in eliciting what they might want or need to know. It asks: how do we generate fresh empirical evidence? And how can this empirically derived evidence be synthesised (across similar studies) and then integrated with other forms of data and information to create new knowledge for application in policy and practice? This latter challenge is explored in two parts: research-based evidence synthesis is covered in this chapter, and broader knowledge integration is examined in more depth in Chapter Eleven.

Often the process by which new knowledge is gleaned from empirical study is referred to as research. But, as already noted in the introduction to this cross-cutting section, we cast the net widely to include any systematic and transparent gathering and analysis of data, whether construed as formal research or not. Such a view opens the door to a consideration of a much wider array of analyses than simply those produced by universities and other research institutes. This has implications for evidence quality, forcing considerations of validity, reliability and bias (see Box 10.1), and places new demands on would- be users to attend carefully to the critical appraisal of the underlying empirical work (again, developed further in Chapter Eleven).

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In exploring the role of evidence in policy and practice we have drawn attention to the very wide range of types of knowledge that can inform policy makers, practitioners and other stakeholders, while also highlighting the special and sometimes privileged role of research-based evidence. Our argument has been that research-based knowledge only rarely stands alone, and needs to be integrated into wider understandings through being incorporated with other forms and types of knowledge. However, such incorporation of research findings has often been disappointing and, in the face of this, efforts to encourage research use have grown in number and ambition over the two decades since the late 1990s. Many examples are documented throughout the book (particularly in Sections Two and Four). It is to this issue that we turn in this chapter.

Initiatives to increase the uptake of research range from national centres/clearing houses that produce, synthesise and disseminate research evidence to local initiatives that encourage researchers and practitioners to work together in knowledge co-producing partnerships. There has been a partial move away from any ‘one size fits all’ solution to promoting the use of research evidence, perhaps prompted by growing recognition that evidence use is situated, and that efforts to promote research use need to respond to differences in policy and practice contexts. There is also increasing acknowledgement that research use is not a single event but a complex process that unfolds over time and involves many actors. Different approaches to encouraging and enabling research use are likely to be more or less helpful at various points in this process (for example, there may be a need for both national clearing houses and local partnerships).

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