Evidence-Based Local Policy Making
While local authorities are increasingly strapped for resources, more is being demanded from them. Local responses to national and global issues require integrated approaches that combine social, economic and environmental concerns, among many others. Getting the local policy settings right is not easy.
But there are things that councils can do, regardless of their size of limited resources. The two reports summarised below provide useful insights.
Evidence-Based Policy in Disadvantaged Places in the UK
How can evidence-based policy help places suffering from high unemployment and poverty, poor health outcomes and other social problems?
The What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth in the UK have produced a report on the ways places can use evidence to help ensure that time and money are spent in ways that are most likely to produce good results.
Designed to help local authorities of all sizes to solve problems in places with a high proportion of vulnerable people with complex needs for support, this report presents six principles for evidence-based policy design. These principles provide guidance on how best to develop policies and help resources go a bit further towards improving the lives of residents.
Principle 1: Defining success
The many goals of local policy are inevitably interconnected. Where different objectives are interconnected, it can help to develop a framework to understand the relationship between outcomes in order to account for spill overs between these outcomes.
Setting SMART objectives (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-based) is an essential and common practice. However, the complexity of outcomes means that one service’s activities will impact on others, and decisions must be made about how to weight the different outcomes.
Developing an outcomes framework for the whole council using SMART objectives could help inform strategic planning.
Principle 2: Doing more with data
Effective use of the large datasets that local authorities hold can help target and prioritise interventions. This can be achieved by improving cross-departmental data infrastructure and making as much local authority data as possible available to third-party organisations.
Much more effort is needed to make open data initiatives part of the bloodstream of local governments. Investing in such data infrastructure to facilitate data and knowledge sharing can be a worthwhile investment.
Principle 3: Using evidence early and often
Most councils understand the importance of evidence-based policymaking. However, the extent to which they seek out evidence to inform their work varies. ‘Evidence diagnostics’ should be carried out to identify easy wins for improving the use of evidence.
Principle 4: Tailoring, targeting and timing
The right intervention at the right time can transform people’s lives. Unfortunately, we rarely know when to intervene, and with what level of intensity, for the best result.
- Tailoring: Whatever the economic or social issue, tailored, intensive interventions often work better. However, what is gained from tailored programs in the quality of support is lost in the number of people a service can support. Local authorities need to compare different delivery models against each other to understand the trade-off between depth and breadth of service. Understanding the cost-benefit ratio of policies can inform these decisions.
- Targeting and timing: Optimising the targeting and timing of interventions can help places do more with less. For councils to prioritise policies effectively, they need to understand the extent to which beneficiaries of a given program would have achieved comparable outcomes without government support.
Principle 5: Measuring success
Rigorous evaluation is important but can be expensive and resource intensive. For disadvantaged places, which already have many demands on their resources, a better approach may be to monitor every project, while evaluating the impact of only a handful of programs.
Quality monitoring, which could be put in place across policies, would be a marginal addition to existing workstreams and would shorten feedback loops to allow quick tweaks and improve policy delivery.
Interesting to note in Australia that this principle was raised in the Victorian Auditor‐General’s 2018 report on Local Government and Economic Development (p. 49): “Although councils have developed performance measures as part of their council plan or their economic development strategies, there was a lack of meaningful reporting on economic development outcomes. Councils monitored and reported on economic development actions, but these actions do not provide any sense of achievement of the strategic economic development outcomes… Limited monitoring of outcomes means councils do not have an evidence‐based view of the effectiveness of their economic development strategies. It also means they do not understand which of their actions are helping to achieve the desired results.”
Principle 6: Sharing what you learn
Publishing and communicating lessons learned from existing policies, whether they are successful or not, can help other local authorities design and focus on the policies that work best. Be open and transparent about findings.
Best practice would be for local authorities to provide enough details to allow someone elsewhere to replicate the findings. This would help shape future design and delivery of the policies, and would help inform decisions regarding what to continue, what to cease doing and what to change.
How Counties in the US can use Evidence-Based Policymaking to Achieve Better Outcomes
Another use reference to the use of evidence in local policy making comes from the US. In 2018, the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative and the National Association of Councils looked at how counties engage in this work.
Because local counties are relatively small in size compared most US states, and because service providers and beneficiaries are in regular contact, county leaders often observe community problems firsthand. They have personal relationships with agency leaders and community stakeholders and can work quickly to solve problems.
As a result, local counties can get the support, buy-in and coordination they need for evidence-based policymaking.
The report identifies ways counties can support and sustain their success, including:
Building internal support for needed changes
Support of leadership and other local actors is critical to success. A lack of buy-in from community and local leaders can inhibit the implementation and sustainment of new practices. This can result in low participation levels from staff, and limited financial, political, or administrative support. On the other hand, early endorsement from key stakeholders can help county officials and agencies overcome obstacles.
Starting with small innovations and scaling them up
Piloting changes on a small scale allows local counties to test whether they work and demonstrate success, before scaling them up gradually. Testing new projects allows time for local policymakers to assess their performance and impact.
If those projects prove successful, information collected can provide proof-of-concept that can help
local leaders obtain the political and financial support needed to scale them up.
Engaging external partners
Partnerships can provide a mechanism for stakeholders across the community and government to share information, skills, and assets. They can create a space for diverse organizations, often in multiple sectors, to share common goals, bring together their viewpoints, accelerate learning, and create coordinated strategies that address policy problems.
Investing in capacity building for provider organisations
Conducting and applying high-quality evaluations requires technical and analytical expertise, as well as access to substantial data. Local counties that set aside or identify new resources for evaluation can dedicate staff with the necessary skills to understand evaluations and oversee external evaluators. They can also increase their ability to make use of existing administrative data.
Leveraging existing administrative data
Local counties can build partnerships with external research entities, such as local universities, to benefit from outside expertise where they lack internal evaluation capacity. These entities have been known to support government efforts by conducting evaluations in their entirety or providing technical assistance or trainings to government staff.
Gradual Steps to Improvement
Evidence-based local policymaking provides a valuable approach for directing limited resources in a high-impact way. While implementing some evidence-based policymaking strategies can be challenging and take time, local authorities can take gradual steps in this direction through rigorous research and systematic processes.
The two reports above, and the other resources found through the links presented, are useful resources in this regard.