Why co-produce? Accounting for diversity in citizens’ motivations to engage in neighbourhood watch schemes.

Carola van Eijk, Trui Steen & Bram Verschuere

In local communities, citizens are more and more involved in the production of public services. To list just a few examples: citizens take care of relatives or friends through informal care, parents help organizing activities at their children’s school, and neighbours help promoting safety and liveability in their community. In all these instances, citizens complement the activities performed by public professionals like nurses, teachers, neighbourhood workers and police officers; this makes it a ‘co-productive’ effort. But why do people want to co-produce? In our recently published article in Local Government Studies we try to answer that question by focusing on one specific case: local community safety. One of the main conclusions is that citizens have different incentives to co-produce public services, and local governments need to be aware of that.

Simultaneous to the international trend to emphasize citizens’ responsibilities in the delivery of public services, there are also concerns about the potential of co-production to increase the quality and democratization of public service delivery. One important question pertains to who is included and excluded in co-production processes. Not all stakeholders might be willing or feel capable to participate. So, acknowledging the added value of citizens’ efforts and the societal need to increase the potential benefits of co-production, it is important to better understand the motivations and incentives of citizens to co-produce public services. A better insight not only can help local governments to keep those citizens who are already involved motivated, but also to find the right incentives to inspire others to get involved. Yet, despite this relevance, the current co-production literature has no clear-cut answer as the issue of citizens’ motivations to co-produce only recently came to the fore.

In our study, we focus on citizens’ engagement in co-production activities in the domain of safety, more specifically though neighbourhood watch schemes in the Netherlands and Belgium. Members of neighbourhood watch teams keep an eye on their neighbourhood. Often they gather information via citizen patrols on the streets, and report their findings to the police and municipal organization. Their signalling includes issues such as streetlamps not functioning, paving stones being broken, or antisocial behaviour. Furthermore, neighbourhood watch teams often draw attention to windows being open or back doors not being closed. Through the neighbourhood watch scheme, the local government and police thus collaborate to increase social control, stimulate prevention, and increase safety.

The opinions of citizens in co-producing these activities and their motivations for getting engaged in neighbourhood watch schemes are investigated using a ‘Q-methodology’ approach. This research method is especially suitable to study how people think about a certain topic. We asked a total of 64 respondents (30 in Belgium and 34 in the Netherlands) to rank a set of statements from totally disagreement to fully agreement.

Based on the rankings, we were able to identify different groups of co-producers. Each of the groups shares a specific viewpoint on their engagement, emphasizing for example more community-focused motivations or a professional attitude in the collaboration with both police and local government. To illustrate, in Belgium one of the groups identified are ‘protective rationalists’, who join the neighbourhood watch team to increase their own personal safety or the safety of their neighbourhood, but also weigh the rewards (in terms of safety) and costs (in terms of time and efforts). In Netherlands, to give another example, among the groups identified we found ‘normative partners’. These co-producers are convinced their investments help protect the common interest and that simply walking around the neighbourhood brings many results. Furthermore, they highly value partnerships with the police: they do not want to take over police’s tasks but argue they cannot function without the police also being involved.

The study shows that citizens being involved in the co-production of safety through neighbourhood watch schemes cannot be perceived as being similar to each other. Rather, different groups of co-producers can be identified, each of these reflecting a different combination of motivations and ideas. As such, the question addressed above concerning why people co-produce cannot be simply answered: the engagement of citizens to co-produce seems to be triggered by a combination of factors. Local governments that expect citizens to do part of the job previously done by professional organisations need to be aware of the incentives people have to co-produce public services. Their policies and communication strategies need to allow for diversity. For example, people who co-produce from a normative perspective might feel misunderstood when compulsory elements are integrated, while people who perceive their engagement as a professional task might be motivated by the provision of extensive feedback.

 

Foto Carola %28bijgesneden%29.jpgCarola van Eijk holds a position as a PhD-candidate at the Institute of Public Administration at Leiden University. In her research, she focusses on the interaction of both professionals and citizens in processes of co-production. In addition, her research interests include citizen participation at the local level, and crises (particularly blame games).

 

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Trui Steen is Professor ‘Public Governance and Coproduction of Public Services’  at KU Leuven Public Governance Institute. She  is interested in the governance of public tasks and the role of public service professionals therein. Her research includes diverse topics, such as professionalism, public service motivation, professional-citizen co-production of public services, central-local government relations, and public sector innovation

 

Bram Verschuere 2.jpg

Bram Verschuere is Associate Professor at Ghent University. His research interests include public policy, public administration, coproduction, civil society and welfare policy. 

Troubled Families: How experimenting could teach us “what works?”

Jason Lowther

 

In this blog on 3rd Feb, I explored the formal Troubled Families Programme (TFP) evaluation and looked at the lessons we can learn in terms of the timing and data quality issues involved. This week I want to consider how designing a more experimental approach into this and future programmes could yield lots more insight into what works where.

The idea of an “experimental” approach to policy and practice echoes enlightenment period thinkers such as Francis Bacon (1561—1626), who promoted an empirical system built on careful experimentation. Donald Campbell’s ideas[1] on ‘reforms as experiments’ argued that social reforms should be routinely linked to rigorous experimental evaluation. ‘Social engineering’ built on ‘social experiments’ became a popular concept in the USA and social science.

Social experiments in America included work in response to a concern that providing even modest income subsidies to the poor would reduce motivation to find and keep jobs. Rossi and Lyall (1976) showed that work disincentives were in fact less than anticipated. In the field of prison rehabilitation, Langley et al. (1972) tested whether group therapy reduced re-offending rates. The results suggested that this approach to group therapy did not affect re-offending rates.

Unfortunately, meaningful experiments proved more difficult than anticipated to deliver in the field, and even robust experiments were often ignored by policy makers. As a result, until recently this experimental approach fell out of favour in social policy, except in the field of medicine.

The term ‘evidence-based medicine’ appears to have been first used by investigators from a US university in the 1990s where it was defined as ‘a systemic approach to analyze published research as the basis of clinical decision making.’ The evidence-based medicine movement considered experiments – specifically, collections of Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs) subject to systematic reviews – as the “gold standard” of proof of whether interventions “work” or not.

Randomised controlled trials are sometimes not easy to undertake in social policy environments, but they can be done and they can provide surprising results. Starting in 2007, Birmingham City Council evaluated three evidence-based programmes in regular children’s services systems using RCTs[2]. We found that one programme (Incredible Years) yielded reductions in negative parenting behaviours among parents, reductions in child behaviour problems, and improvements in children’s relationships; whereas another (Triple-P) had no significant effects.

What was interesting for practitioners was that the children in all the trials had experienced improvements in their conduct. Only by use of a formal “control” group were we able to see that these “untreated” children were also improving, and so we were able to separate out the additional impacts of the intervention programmes.

There are a number of lessons from this and other past experience that can help practitioners wanting to deliver robust trials to test whether innovations are working (or not). The most important point is: build the evaluation testing into the design of the programme. The Troubled Families Programme could have built an RCT into the rollout of the programme – for example, selecting first year cases randomly from the list of families who were identified as eligible for the scheme. Or introducing the scheme in some council areas a year earlier than others. Or councils could have done this themselves by gradually rolling out the approach in different area teams.

Sandra Nutley and Peter Homel’s review[3] of the New Labour government’s Crime Reduction Programme stressed the importance of balancing the tensions between fidelity to “evidence based” policy (to maximise the chance of impact) and innovation (to ensure relevance to the local context), short-term wins and long-term learning, and evaluator independence (to ensure rigour) versus engagement (to help delivery).

In my final blog on the TFP next time, I explore the potential for “theory-based” approaches to evaluation helping us to understand “what works and why?” in this and other policy areas.

Campbell, D. T. and Russo, M. J. (1999) Social experimentation. Sage Publications, Inc.

Langley, M., Kassebaum, G., Ward, D. A. and Wilner, D. M. 1972. Prison Treatment and Parole Survival. JSTOR.

Nutley, S. and Homel, P. (2006) ‘Delivering evidence-based policy and practice: Lessons from the implementation of the UK Crime Reduction Programme’, Evidence & Policy: A Journal of Research, Debate and Practice, 2(1), pp. 5-26.

Rossi, P. H. and Lyall, K. (1976) ‘Reforming public welfare’, New York: Russell Sage.

Sanderson, I. (2002) ‘Evaluation, policy learning and evidence‐based policy making’, Public administration, 80(1), pp. 1-22.

White, M. (1999) ‘Evaluating the effectiveness of welfare-to-work: learning from cross-national evidence’, Evaluating Welfare to Work. Report, 67.

[1] Campbell, D. T. and Russo, M. J. (1999) Social experimentation. Sage Publications, Inc.

[2] Little, Michael, et al. “The impact of three evidence-based programmes delivered in public systems in Birmingham, UK.” International Journal of Conflict and Violence (IJCV) 6.2 (2012): 260-272.

[3] Nutley, S. and Homel, P. (2006) ‘Delivering evidence-based policy and practice: Lessons from the implementation of the UK Crime Reduction Programme’, Evidence & Policy: A Journal of Research, Debate and Practice, 2(1), pp. 5-26.

 

 

lowther-jason

 

Jason Lowther is a senior fellow at INLOGOV. His research focuses on public service reform and the use of “evidence” by public agencies.  Previously he led Birmingham City Council’s corporate strategy function, worked for the Audit Commission as national value for money lead, for HSBC in credit and risk management, and for the Metropolitan Police as an internal management consultant. He tweets as @jasonlowther

Councils going bankrupt? Don’t be Scilly!

Chris Game

 

Remember the old London bus joke: you wait for ages, then three come along at once? Well, some local government finance anoraks have been waiting ages for a 114, and now two 24s arrive, almost in mini-convoy.

Not buses, of course – but key sections of Acts of Parliament. Section 114 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 requires a council’s Chief Finance Officer (CFO) to issue a s114 Notice reporting to all elected members an actual or impending seriously unbalanced budget.

As indicated, they’re infrequent, issued only in what CIPFA terms (p.3) “the gravest of circumstances” – current spending way beyond budget, reserves virtually exhausted, no imminent solution. Their impact too is grave – effectively freezing spending until councillors agree measures to achieve a balanced budget. But … they do keep the crisis in-house.

The alternative – being required to wash your dirty linen in public – is the dreaded Section 24 of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014. Here, a council’s external auditors append a written s24 ‘Recommendation’ to their Annual Audit letter, “copied to the Secretary of State”. The recommending and copying may sound chummy, but it’s the bullet-shaped chumminess of a Mafia ‘message job’. S24 Notices are very nasty, and happily very rare – or were.

Recently the Isles of Scilly Council received one, which is interesting in itself, since not everyone’s clear what it actually is: not part of the already enormous Cornwall Council, but a sui generis unitary authority – in a class of its own.

It’s considerably smaller than my own authority, Birmingham City Council (bear with me, it’s not that daft a comparison), with one-480th of its population – though, interestingly, one councillor for every 109 residents, compared to Birmingham’s post-2018 ration of one for every 10,900. And, as a genuine unitary, it has Birmingham’s major functions, including an airport, plus fire services, water supply, sea fisheries and coastal defence.

Unfortunately, Scilly’s unique status doesn’t exempt it from the austerity pressures and grant cuts faced by all English councils. It’s suffering badly, and its external auditors concluded that – with £3 million needed to pay staff and suppliers, no council tax income for the last two months of the financial year, and reserves down to £0.5 million – the law required Section 24, ‘recommending’ in terms (p.37) that the Council get its whole financial act together, extremely pronto.

Its impact, warning notwithstanding, can be surmised from the reaction of the eminent former Labour leader of the previous council to have received a s24 missive, just last November from coincidentally the same auditors, Grant Thornton. “The most concerning audit letter I have seen in all my [36] years on the council” was Cllr Sir Albert Bore’s verdict – the council being Birmingham, and the equivalent budget black hole not £3 million but pushing £38 million.

Just as Aristotle’s single swallow did not a summer make, two s24s don’t themselves make a systemic winter crisis. They’re surely, though, a sign – given that not one such report was issued to any council during the whole four-year 2010 spending review period, and we’ve now had two in two months.

But a sign of what? That’s rhetorical. I’m categorically not a local finance expert, and in this blog’s limited remaining space there are no answers – just three observations.

  1. Why no s114s?

 In the past we’d see them at least occasionally. Now there are rumoured sightings – e.g. in Northamptonshire – yet what have materialised are the two s24s, the proverbial nuclear option. It’s been suggested that the (post-1988 Local Finance Act) statutory duties of Social Services Directors mean a s114-prompted total spending freeze could prevent, say, a vulnerable child being placed in care. But CIPFA Chief Executive Rob Whiteman has rejected this interpretation.

  1. Please, not the B-word

There’s unfortunately no way of avoiding the media headline, but Scilly, Birmingham and probably any financially struggling English councils aren’t about to ‘go bankrupt’ in the sense in which the word is commonly understood. UK councils, unlike US local government or our own national government, are statutorily required to set each year a balanced budget. Running a deficit of the smallest fraction of Detroit’s nearly $400 million in 2013 is simply not possible – indeed, a very s(c)illy idea.

3. But watch for those ‘statutory duties’

So not bankruptcy in the normal legal sense, but almost daily signs and public warnings – Conservative Surrey’s seriously contemplated 15% council tax referendum, tax hikes all round of approaching 5%, hitherto protected adult care budgets now being cut and 13% of responding councils in the MJ/LGIU 2017 State of Local Government Finance Survey –reporting “a danger they would no longer have enough funding to fulfil their statutory duties in the coming year”.

Which would mean facing legal challenge for failing to meet those statutory duties and/or declaring ‘technical insolvency’. Not ‘bankruptcy’, note; but, as the famous duck test puts it: if it looks like, walks like, and quacks like a duck ….

 

Chris Game - pic

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

First, do no harm – An assessment of the Housing and Planning White Paper

Anthony Mason gives an initial assessment of the white paper on housing and planning in England

First impressions are not always very reliable.  When Sajid Javid replaced Greg Clark as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government following the post-vote governmental putsch last year (sorry, change of Prime Minister following the referendum), local government figures were very wary.  Clark had, and still has, a reputation for understanding local government and can connect the local to the national in discussions around the cabinet table in a way that few of his colleagues are able to. Javid, however, was an unknown quantity – said to feel that the DCLG role was a demotion and giving every indication that he was unexcited by the move.

Yet, for those of us specifically interested in housing policy, Clark – alongside his spiky and confrontational housing minister, Brandon Lewis, presided over some rotten housing policies, as I suggested in this place last year.  Indeed, the Housing and Planning Act 2016 will, I suspect, go down in legislative history as the Dangerous Dogs Act of housing policy in England.  Gratifyingly, a number of the craziest measures enabled by that Act have proved so difficult to implement that the “new” government has simply shunted them into a siding and (we hope) left them there to rot.

And now comes the first comprehensive white paper on housing policy in England for almost a generation. Bearing the less than poetic title-as-ambition of Fixing our broken housing market.  Javid and his refreshingly rounded housing minister Gavin Barwell, set out in 104 pages and many supporting papers their ambitions to do just that.  To their great credit, Javid and Barwell have spent many weeks on careful consultation with local government, sector interests, and Number 10 before getting this far; delaying the publication of the white paper somewhat while doing so.  They have even persuaded the PM to pen a lengthy introduction to the paper – presumably in the hope of corralling rural Conservative NIMBYs into line.

The white paper sets out many proposals and poses 38 carefully framed policy questions for response (by 2nd May 2017, if you’d like to contribute).  But in quick summary, it:

  • Acknowledges that England needs around 250,000 new homes each year going forward. This was expressed as “between 225,000 and 275,000 homes” – and is up from the oft-quoted 200,000 previously accepted (but never consistently realised)
  • Proposes that each local authority will have to draw up and regularly review an “honest assessment” of local housing need – methodology to follow.
  • Says that developers could be forced to build within two years of planning consent, or see that consent lapse. At the moment, permission usually lapses after three years.  The paper also proposes new compulsory purchase powers for councils where sites lie undeveloped – details to follow.
  • Suggests an expanded and more flexible affordable homes programme, for housing associations and local authorities, with £7.1bn of (already announced) funding. It drops the “old” government’s fixation with starter homes in favour of a more balanced approach.
  • Encourages building rates at higher density – including of higher buildings – to make best use of land (and to avoid having to give a view on releasing green belt).
  • Dodges the question of future housing association and council rent levels after George Osborne’s compulsory rent reductions “We will provide clarity over future rent levels. In return, we expect them to build significantly more affordable homes over the current parliament.” Is what ministers promise.
  • Says that smaller building firms will be given assistance to expand, including support for off-site construction (where components are fabricated off-site and factory-assembled). It also encourages “build to let” where private companies build large-volume rental flats for tenants.
  • Continues a focus on leaseholds, proposing what it calls “an end to leasehold abuse” where home buyers are locked into leases with spiralling ground rents.

Most of us acknowledge the general need for new homes while protesting loudly if those homes are to be built near to us – and for years, housing policy in England has tried not to upset voters and yet deliver new homes.  And the white paper has had to throw titbits in all directions to keep sector interests at bay.  Local authorities are both excoriated for planning failures and mildly encouraged to build new homes.  Those who worship at the altar of home ownership will be pleased that there is a threat to close a loophole that has allowed councils building homes through wholly-owned companies to avoid the right to buy.  Those who see renting as the most realistic way forward will be pleased that much of the white paper acknowledges this reality and makes gentle proposals for longer tenancies.  Big developers are both criticised for not building out sites as well as encouraged by some anti-planner language.

But ministers have failed to resolve some longstanding conundrums – and a couple of new ones – in their paper:

  • Successive governments have tried to combine bottom-up and top-down policies on housing which appear to conflict in their efforts to encourage and coerce. For example, communities and parishes have been given more control over developments and yet principal councils are still required to provide new homes.  Housing associations should develop more and yet have no control over the rents they can charge for these new homes.
  • Government has long had an intellectual tendency to support developers over planners – even though planning consents have been running ahead of homes built for some time. This white paper at last begins to recognise that not all is well, with our developers while avoiding the obvious response: councils’ potential contribution to building at scale.
  • There is a cherished belief that brownfield sites can provide the majority of our new homes, but these sites no longer match need. Not surprisingly, they are disproportionately in cities, but not all housing need is city-based.  The white paper avoids the question of building on the green belt, even though, in our own city, we’ve faced a highly charged debate about this topic.
  • A further concern is around labour and skills. We’ve long worried that not enough UK youngsters express any desire to work in the building industry.  This is now compounded by fears of the actual or apparent impact of Brexit on the non-UK workforce.

The fundamental question that the paper avoids is whether any combination of our present arrangements for building can ever deliver the amount of housing we need; as the answer to that question may be too hot to handle.  It’s old evidence now, but the Calcutt review of the housebuilding industry commissioned a decade ago set out a straightforward graphic showing who has built what in the UK in the years since the Second World War (see figure one on page 10).

untitledThis evidence was summarised in a beautifully simple graphic (above) by the University of Sheffield School of Architecture.  It evidences that the three decade long gap in our housing provision is simply because we’ve stopped building council houses.  The answer to the fundamental question would seem to be to let councils (and housing associations) build again at some scale in order to supplement the relatively fixed-but-declining contribution of private developers.

The title to this post is a common misquotation of the Hippocratic Oath.  It suggests that a first duty for medics is not to do harm “Primum non nocere” – and the new white paper seems to pass that test, at least.  If a second duty is “then to do good” – then I’m not yet convinced that the paper will achieve that in any significant way.

Anthony Mason

 

 

Anthony Mason is an Associate at INLOGOV and works mostly on local government systems and organisation and on improving public sector partnerships.  His early career was in local government followed by more than 20 years in PwC’s public sector consultancy team.

 

 

Troubled Families: Two Secrets to Great Evaluations

Jason Lowther

In this blog last week I explored the (rather flimsy) evidence base available to the developers of the original Troubled Families Programme (TFP) and the potential for “theory of change” approaches to provide useful insights in developing future policy. This week I return to the formal TFP evaluation and look at the lessons we can learn in terms of the timing and data quality issues involved.

The first secret of great evaluation: timing

The experience of the last Labour Government is very instructive here. New Labour appeared as strong advocates of evidence-based policy making, and in particular were committed to extensive use of policy evaluation. Evaluated pilots were completed across a wide range including policies relating to welfare, early years, employment, health and crime. This included summative evaluations of their outcomes and formative evaluations whilst the pilots were underway, attempting to answer the questions “Does this work?” and “How does this work best?”

Ian Sanderson provided a useful overview of Labour’s experience at the end of its first five years in power[i]. He found that one of the critical issues in producing great evaluations (as for great comedy), is timing. Particularly for complex and deep-rooted issues (such as troubled families), it can take a significant time for even the best programmes to have an impact. We now know the (median) time a family remained on the TFP programme was around 15 months.

It can also take significant time for projects to reach the “steady state” conditions, which they would work under when fully implemented. Testing whether there are significant effects can require long-term, in-depth analysis. This doesn’t fit well with the agenda of politicians or managers looking to learn quickly and sometimes to prove a point.

Nutley and Homel’s review[ii] of lessons from New Labour’s Crime Reduction Programme found that “projects generally ran for 12 months and they were just starting to get into their stride when the projects and their evaluations came to an end” (p.19).

In the case of the Troubled Families Programme, the programme started in April 2012, and most of the national data used in the evaluation relates to the 2013-14 financial year. Data on exclusions covered only those starting in the first three months of the programme, whereas data on offending, benefits and employment covered families starting in the first ten months of roll-out.

We know that 70% of the families were still part-way through their engagement with the TFP when their “outcomes” were counted, and around half were still engaged six months later.

It’s now accepted by DCLG that the formal evaluation was run too quickly and for too short a time. There just wasn’t time to demonstrate significant impacts on many outcomes.

The second secret: data quality

Another major element of effective evaluation is the availability of reliable data. Here the independent evaluation had an incredibly difficult job to do. The progress they have made is impressive – for the first time matching a wide range of national data sets, local intelligence and qualitative surveys. But at the end of the day the data quality base of the evaluation is in places poor.

The evaluation couldn’t access data on anti-social behaviour from national data sets, as this is not recorded by the police. This is unfortunate given that the strongest evidence on the effectiveness of TFP-like (Family Intervention) programmes in the past concerns reducing crime and anti-social behaviour[iii].

A chunk of data came from the 152 local authorities. This data was more up to date (October 2015), although only 56 of the councils provided data – which enabled matching to around one quarter of TFP families. The evaluation report acknowledges that this data was “of variable quality”. For example, the spread of academy schools without a duty to co-operate meant there are significant gaps in school attendance data. This will be a serious problem for future evaluations unless academies’ engagement with the wider public service system is assured.

In summary, the TFP evaluation covered too short a period and, despite heroic efforts by DCLG and the evaluators, was based on data of very variable quality and completeness.

Next time we will explore the “impact” evaluation in more detail – looking at how designing a more experimental approach into this and future programmes could yield more robust evaluation conclusions of what works where.

[i] Sanderson, Ian. “Evaluation, policy learning and evidence‐based policy making.” Public administration 80.1 (2002): 1-22.

[ii] Nutley, Sandra, and Peter Homel. “Delivering evidence-based policy and practice: Lessons from the implementation of the UK Crime Reduction Programme.” Evidence & Policy: A Journal of Research, Debate and Practice 2.1 (2006): 5-26.

[iii] DfE, “Monitoring and evaluation of family intervention services and projects between February 2007 and March 2011”, 2011, available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/184031/DFE-RR174.pdf

 

 

lowther-jason

 

Jason Lowther is a senior fellow at INLOGOV. His research focuses on public service reform and the use of “evidence” by public agencies.  Previously he led Birmingham City Council’s corporate strategy function, worked for the Audit Commission as national value for money lead, for HSBC in credit and risk management, and for the Metropolitan Police as an internal management consultant. He tweets as @jasonlowther

 

So: does the Troubled Families Programme work or not? – Part Two

Jason Lowther

In this blog last week I outlined results of the “impact evaluation” element of the Troubled Families Programme (TFP) and the rather limited pre-existing evidence base the TFP had to be built upon. How can government build on existing evidence in designing its initiatives, and what can we do when there isn’t much in the evidence cupboard?

Many government programmes have the luxury of a relatively strong evidence base on which to build. The previous Labour government’s National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal and Sure Start programmes, for instance, could draw on decades of research (collated through the 18 Policy Action Teams) on urban initiatives and the impact of early years experiences on achievements in later life. These sometimes honoured the extant evidence more in the theory than in practice[i], but at least they had foundations on which to build.

As evaluations of the Labour government’s Crime Reduction Programme found[ii], it is a difficult task to translate evidence, which is often “fragmented and inconclusive” into practical government programmes. People skilled at this task are in short supply in central government.

But in the case of the TFP, the most robust element of the existing evidence base was a single evaluation using a “control” of 54 families and focussed on addressing anti-social behaviour through Family Intervention Projects. What can government do when the evidence base is thin?

One strong tradition, particularly around medicine and around welfare policies in the USA, has been the idea of “experimental government” using social experiments to determine whether (and if so how) innovative approaches work in practice. For example, in the last three decades of the 20th century, America’s Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC) conducted 30 major random assignment experiments involving nearly 300,000 people.

Historically, randomised controlled trials (RCTs) were viewed by many as the “gold standard” of evaluation by allowing statistically robust assessments of “causality” – whether observed changes are due to the intervention being evaluated. More recent thinking emphasises that evaluations need to be designed in the best way to create robust evidence and answer specific questions. Often this will involve a mixture of methods, both quantitative and qualitative. The TFP evaluation used a mixture of methods but without building in a “control” group of “troubled families” not yet receiving the TFP interventions.

Granger[iii] argued (for area based initiatives), that the range and variety of initiatives and the scale of change in government means that a strict statistical “control” is unfeasible. She argued that it is “virtually impossible” to achieve precise and clear-cut causal attribution and that we need clear, strong theories as a basis for counterfactual reasoning and causal inference.

The TFP evaluation did not develop or test a “theory of change” for the programme. This is a pity, because rigorously testing a theory can help illuminate where and how programmes do (or don’t) have real impact.

There are several other lessons we can learn from the existing literature on evaluation in government, for example the importance of timing and data quality. We’ll look at these next time.

[i] Coote, Anna, Jessica Allen, and David Woodhead. “Finding out what works.” Building knowledge about complex, community-based initiatives. London: Kings Fund (2004), esp. pp. 17-18.

[ii] Nutley, Sandra, and Peter Homel. “Delivering evidence-based policy and practice: Lessons from the implementation of the UK Crime Reduction Programme.” Evidence & Policy: A Journal of Research, Debate and Practice 2.1 (2006): 5-26.

[iii] Granger, R. C. (1998) ‘Establishing causality in evaluations of comprehensive community initiatives’, New approaches to evaluating community initiatives, 2, pp. 221-46.
lowther-jason

Jason Lowther is a senior fellow at INLOGOV. His research focuses on public service reform and the use of “evidence” by public agencies.  Previously he led Birmingham City Council’s corporate strategy function, worked for the Audit Commission as national value for money lead, for HSBC in credit and risk management, and for the Metropolitan Police as an internal management consultant. He tweets as @jasonlowther