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Solace blog

6th November 2015

A clear line of sight?

Last week the Institute for Government released a short report called ‘Show Your Workings’ – you may have seen it referenced in the 26 October Solace Policy Briefing. The report reflected on attempts by the Institute to judge the extent to which government policy was evidence-based – after all, the Civil Service Reform Plan set out a commitment to publish the evidence base that supports policy making, in the interests of transparency and accountability.

At its most basic, we would expect a good policy-making process to state the issue it was focussing on, appraise the various options for intervention, and then justify the specific intervention(s) adopted. An excellent policy-making process would, in addition, set out how it planned to appraise the intervention in terms of meeting its stated objectives.

Previous work suggested that, while there were, of course, supply-side issues with the availability of and access to relevant evidence, the main concerns lay on the demand side – in short, there are no negative consequences for a government department making policy without reference to the best evidence that is available, or any evidence at all come to that. This is especially true of late as the traditional legislative route of green paper, white paper, bill, and act, has given way to bill, act, and secondary instrument, where making explicit the policy intention and consideration of issues and options has all but disappeared.

Upon reviewing a number of government policies, it was clear that in most cases it was not possible to establish any sort of line of sight between a policy intention and the specific intervention(s) selected. Even worse, where evidence was utilised in the policy formulation process, it was often not clear how it had in any way informed the interventions selected.

This is especially true when the evidence in question is feedback from consultation exercises. It is very rare for governments to adopt the best practice of setting out its position in respect of each response that was received to the consultation – as we in local government are expected to do in certain cases, for example with spatial planning.

The outcome of this work has been to create an Evidence Transparency Framework – a very simple checklist and scoring matrix of what to look for when judging the policy formation process. The more that the policy formulation process has analysed the issue in question, undertaken a thorough search for evidence, conducted an options appraisal of the possible interventions, and designed a relevant evaluation framework, then the more likely it is that that policy will succeed.

If this approach is not adopted, then it is impossible to be properly transparent, which enables the basis of the policy decision to be understood and scrutinised. And one way of embedding this approach is to ensure that select committees and bill committees utilise the ‘Evidence Transparency Framework’ as part of their scrutiny processes.

Creating a transparent and systematic method for assessing the use of evidence, and for weighing the quality of the evidence used, that is consistently applied in the policy formation process would be a major step forward for central government. It would stop, or more likely reduce the creation of dossiers of questionable evidence or the use of anecdote and ‘human stories’ collated as so-called evidence to justify a policy intention.

We in Solace are working with the Centre for Public Scrutiny on a parallel piece of work looking to produce a similar framework for council scrutiny committees up and down the land. Whilst we fully understand that not all decisions can or even should be evidence-led, just think how powerful it would be if in all scrutiny meetings, and under all agenda items, the scrutiny committee simply asked: “Where’s the evidence?” I think we would all be forced to up our game in such a world.

If you would like to contribute to this piece of work or to join Solace’s Evidence-Based Policy Network, please contact Martina Cicakova on

By Abdool Kara, Chief Executive, Swale Borough Council and Solace Spokesperson on Evidence-Based Policy