Putting knowledge to work — both fast and slow

By Geoff Mulgan

The International Public Policy Observatory is a new initiative connecting UK-wide decision-makers with the latest global research in order to better inform responses to the societal impacts of COVID-19

How should we help schoolchildren who’ve struggled with online lessons to catch up? What interventions work best in care homes dealing with COVID-19? What can be done to help the millions struggling with anxiety and loneliness through the lockdowns of the past year? How should people living on the streets of big cities be helped through the crisis?

These are just a few of the questions being addressed by the new International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO). Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), this is an initiative focused on the more social aspects of the COVID crisis — from new patterns of inequality to the challenges of life online.

IPPO’s aim is simple but challenging: to listen to policymakers and work with them to identify questions and evidence gaps. And then to find, assess and distil the world’s best available research and make it available to decision-makers at every level, from Whitehall departments to devolved administrations, local government to organisations delivering services.

To do this we’ve pulled together a stellar team, coordinated by the Science, Technology Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP) department at UCL. Oxford University’s Blavatnik School and the INGSA global network of scientists are helping to scan and understand policy responses around the world in more than 100 countries. The Evidence for Policy and Practice Information (EPPI) Centre at UCL is pulling together millions of research articles, and expert networks, to synthesise the best-available research knowledge, while The Conversation helps to ensure that everything IPPO publishes is easily digestible for busy decision-makers. Cardiff University, Queen’s University Belfast and the Scottish Policy and Research Exchange tie us into networks of research and action right across the UK.

Our hope is that IPPO won’t just be useful in helping the UK navigate the next phases of the COVID crisis and recovery. We want to establish better ways of enabling research-based knowledge to be used and useful — learnings and processes that can be extended beyond and more widely than this current crisis.

People grappling with difficult decisions

There is a long history of attempts to bring together evidence about what works. Some earlier initiatives were essentially libraries or repositories which brought together lots of evidence with a ‘build it and they will come’ spirit. Unfortunately, not many did come and these repositories were neither very useful nor much used.

A more recent generation of initiatives have focused much more on the ‘demand side’ as well as the supply, linking rigorous evidence into how decisions are made. NICE (the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) is the most prominent example: its syntheses on the evidence for cost-effectiveness of drugs and treatments are very influential in the NHS, and guide what is commissioned. More recent examples include the Education Endowment Foundation, working closely with teachers, and the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care, supporting social workers. At their best, such initiatives stay in close touch with the needs of people grappling with difficult decisions, and provide evidence that has been carefully digested and curated.

The biggest challenge — for IPPO too — is that while the internet allows us to access unprecedented quantities of information, attention spans remain as limited as ever. This is particularly true if you’re doing a stressful job in government, or running a school or care home. You just don’t have time to dive into detailed research studies — and you’re likely to get frustrated if the answer to any question is ‘we need more research’.

That’s why pithy, evidence-based summaries geared towards clear actions are vital (along with easy links to more detailed research for those with the time and appetite to dig deeper). Building working relationships between those who produce evidence, and decision-makers and people on the frontline who want to be informed by that research, is central to IPPO’s mission.

In getting these relationships to work well, it’s also crucial that the evidence and data are sufficiently granular. During the crisis, the governments that have been able to spot problems in a fine-grained way and then respond at the level of individuals, families and neighbourhoods have done much better than those using blunter tools. So too with evidence: for example, children’s experiences of schooling in lockdown are very different depending on whether they have special needs, good support at home, reliable connectivity or plenty of friends. Generalising too much is of little help; it’s the disaggregated data and evidence that tells us most.

Our priority in the next phase of the pandemic

The intense pressures of COVID-19 around the world have forced policymakers to be extraordinarily agile: building entirely new systems to provide income support to families or cash for businesses; acting with unprecedented alacrity to help people living on the streets into accommodation — not to mention shaping social norms and behaviours.

Our priority in the next phase of the pandemic is to help decision-makers throughout the UK avoid unnecessary mistakes by drawing on experience and knowledge from across the world.

Through IPPO, we hope to show how a knowledge system can be quick and responsive as well as grounded in solid evidence, fine-grained as well as clear on the broader patterns, globally informed as well as locally relevant. That means having plenty of conversations, listening hard to what decision-makers are grappling with, and bringing the providers of knowledge together with the users.

We hope that you will engage with us over the next few months: if you are a public servant grappling with the need to act, please let us know what questions you most need answered; if you are a researcher with vital knowledge and insights, please help us to connect you to the people who make use of it.

In the next few weeks, we’re starting a series of roundtables on urgent topics — including Responding to the mental health impacts on schoolchildren on 11 February at 1pm, and What is working on street homelessness policy? on 22 February at 4pm. If you’re working in these areas and would like to join either roundtable, please email policyimpactunit@ucl.ac.uk.

This crisis is far from over. So far, the UK has seen extraordinary achievements and commitment — but also quite a few mistakes. Hopefully, together we can minimise the harms and maximise the opportunities over the next phases of the crisis and recovery.


About the Author

Sir Geoff Mulgan is Professor of Collective Intelligence, Public Policy and Social Innovation at STEaPP.



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