The main task of these independent centres will be to undertake a systematic review of existing evidence to "produce a sound, accurate, clear and actionable synthesis of the global evidence base which:
- ranks interventions on the basis of effectiveness and cost effectiveness
- shows applicability
- shows the relative cost of interventions
- shows the strength of evidence on the agreed scale."
That said, there are some government evaluations and academic studies out there that would provide more convincing evidence. Presumably the What Works centre would rank these as of high quality and the others of (very) low quality and that would help local policy makers, right?
The problem, of course, is that the less careful the study the greater is the tendency to find big positive impacts of the policy. In contrast, more careful studies tend to have a hard time detecting much impact. In fact, for the NAO study, it appears that the correlation between these two attributes (quality of the study and claims about impact) was depressingly negative. When you take this kind of evidence to local government I am very worried that there will be a tendency to ignore the quality ranking and focus on the impact ranking. After all, evaluation is hard, and even well trained central government analysts, who should know better, are willing to claim that the robust evaluation of spatial policies (e.g. that would score high on the Maryland scale) is not possible. Those concerns multiply once you get to politicians (either local or national) particularly if the convincing evidence is overwhelmingly negative on policies that government seem determined to introduce. Just look at Enterprise Zones.
Does all of this mean we shouldn't even try? Of course not. Indeed, it's good to see the government and ESRC investing money in these new centres. And, it should go without saying, in many policy areas Britain is already streets ahead of other countries in terms of the role that evidence plays in policy formation. But embedding the use of evidence in the development of local economic growth policy is certainly going to be a challenging task for whoever picks up the baton ...