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Solace blog

5th February 2016

Art and Science: Using Evidence to Inform Decisionmaking

I am a big fan of BBC One’s Silent Witness – I’m not sure if the way that the Lyell Centre’s forensic pathologists work alongside the police bears any semblance of reality, but it certainly makes for some pretty good telly. For someone who started out as a scientist – the way that the team use all manner of data, techniques, and tests working as an integrated team with the police to provide evidence is fascinating.

Of course, it always leads to the “baddie” being caught and justice being done – and all in two hours. Last week one member of the team – Jack – was skyping from the scene of a crime back to the lab, providing real-time information on bullet patterns to inform an autopsy. Dramatic licence aside, I think it’s a great example of how multidisciplinary teams work together and some of the tools and techniques that make them effective. It got me thinking about the debate we are having about digital, data and evidence (DDE) and their massive potential within local government and
across public services.

Last week, SOLACE, the Alliance for Useful Evidence and Nesta hosted an Evidence Masterclass. I arrived not knowing what to expect and left convinced that we must do more about evidencing what really works and why, if we are ever to crack the nut of better outcomes for substantially less cash. That means bigging up the science and marrying that successfully with the art of public policy making. A key foundation for research evidence is having data readily available and in a digital form that can be used and shared – so for me digital, data and evidence go hand in hand.

The team of chief execs and senior managers on my table thought that the concept of using DDE more absolutely makes sense, but in terms of evidence, we don’t always think to use it. It’s increasingly clear that we need to see DDE as one part of our leadership toolkit to operate as public servants in the 21 century, so what is stopping us?

Are we consistently using evidence to inform decisions and if not why? Better research also means having to tackle the equally big challenges of getting better data and digitalising services– is it just another thing to think about when we are under pressure to deliver so much other stuff? Dare I suggest we may have got a bit lazy thinking that we always know intuitively what is meant by essential services, the vulnerable, the projects that are really going to drive growth? Are we applying as much rigour to question the impact of existing public policy so we can manage demand
and reduce cost, as we did to decisions on new policy in a time of plenty? Is it that there isn’t a political or managerial appetite to really hear what the evidence says? Maybe there isn’t the evidence base readily available or in a form that is easy for non-data analysts or policy gurus to understand and get to grips with – so it’s all about communication and making it snappy.

Clearly, there are great examples of where DDE is being used and embedded from across local government and health. Perhaps we are using evidence really effectively and just need to share our experiences with others so we can start to see the value on scale – combined authorities offer a great opportunity to make this real. You may think we have made huge leaps forward and should congratulate ourselves for being much better than our colleagues in other sectors or than we were 3 years ago.

Whatever your views may be – I would argue that we need to be honest about both the opportunity and the reality of how we are applying this in practice and continue to challenge ourselves on why we are doing things a certain way.

Of course, decisions will always be made through a mix of instinct and information, art and science, innovation and trusted solutions – but how do we harness the best of all worlds so that we make even better decisions at this critical time? Being humble enough to recognise that we won’t just be using digital, data and evidence because they are the latest thing in fashion, but because they genuinely will deliver better outcomes for people.

By Lisa Commane, Assistant Director ICT, Transformation and Customer Services, Coventry City Council