What Works case study

Tighter evaluation of policies and how they are delivered is more than ever a precondition of better value for money. Inspired by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, What Works centres use social science methods to collect evidence to evaluate and improve performance of government agencies, local authorities and voluntary bodies. National adviser David Halpern, a distinguished social scientist in his own right, says the aim is to offer the best expert assessment to professional service staff or policy commissioners. It’s for them to make the final judgement on what to do, weighing up public sentiment and the context of policy as well as the impartial expert view.

The centres sit firmly within the social science ecosystem, relying on long strands of previous work and the continuing capacity of the ESRC and government research commissioners to innovate and back new projects. The seven UK central government centres cover areas where around £200 billion is spent each year. They include the College of Policing Centre for Crime Reduction, the Education Endowment Foundation, the EIF, the Centre for Local Economic Growth, the Centre for Ageing Better (improved quality of life for older people) and the Centre for Wellbeing. In addition there is What Works Scotland, focused on public service improvement, and the Public Policy Institute for Wales, providing advice across the range of Welsh Government competencies in a rolling programme agreed with the First Minister.

The centres review existing findings and stimulate new inquiries, disseminating results to decision makers and improving the capacity of government to commission and apply evidence. Among recent findings is the discovery that pupils in a class with a teaching assistant do not, on average, perform better than those in a class with only a teacher; but teaching assistants can have a positive impact if they are trained in specific ways, backed by trials in schools. Another shows how small group tuition can be a cost-effective alternative to one-to-one teaching for struggling pupils. All review existing research findings and stimulate new inquiries, disseminating results to decision makers and improving the capacity of public officials to commission and apply evidence. The Centre for Local Economic Growth found ‘the overall measurable effects of major sport and culture projects on a local economy tend not to be large and are more often zero’, with wage and income effects usually small and limited to the immediate locality or particular types of worker.