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  • Author or Editor: Alec Fraser x
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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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Evidence-informed policy and practice

Building substantially on the earlier, landmark text, What Works? (Policy Press, 2000), this book brings together key thinkers and researchers to provide a contemporary review of the aspirations and realities of evidence-informed policy and practice. The text is clearly structured and provides sector-by-sector analysis of evidence use in policy-making and service delivery. It considers some cross-cutting themes, including a section of international commentaries, and concludes by looking at lessons from the past and prospects for the future.

This book will be of interest to a wide range of social science researchers, students and practitioners as well as those interested in supporting more evidence-informed policy and practice.

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Evidence is integral to both the process and the evaluation of policy making, and evidence is also fundamental to both understanding and then improving practice. Beyond this, evidence also embodies claims to truth, and is thus imbued with import and power as well as being politically contested. In this book we take a fresh look at the relationships between evidence, policy and practice across different policy domains and different geographical jurisdictions. We appraise what we know about the use of evidence in policy and practice and consider the future direction of the field. Our focus and our starting point in doing so is the United Kingdom (UK), and especially UK public services. This is partly because this is where we, as editors, are based and the country we know best, and partly because this is where many of the debates have originated or been exemplified. That said, throughout the book we seek to look beyond these shores to see how new ideas have emerged in other jurisdictions or how existing themes are operationalised, with innovative twists, elsewhere. Thus the necessarily UK-centric nature of the analysis is balanced by a contextualisation in international practices and debates (while recognising that debates conducted in languages other than English have been less accessible to us).

We begin our explorations with an example to set the scene for the contributions that follow. In doing so, we tell the story of research conducted to inform the debate about food advertising aimed at children: one element of the policy response to tackling the obesity crisis.

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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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