A ‘decisive shift to prevention’

Paul Cairney and Emily St Denny ask 'How do we turn an idea into evidence based policy?'

The Scottish Centre on Constitutional Change does not simply examine the potential for a major event, Scottish independence, to have a major impact on Scottish politics. It also focuses on policymaking, which often exhibits stability and continuity despite major events. For example, the idea of evidence based policymaking (EBPM) represents a broad aim that the Scottish Government would pursue regardless of its constitutional status. The Scottish Government is also likely to continue its focus on a ‘decisive shift to prevention’ - to pursue ‘early interventions’ in people’s lives and address potential social problems before they produce high demand for acute, responsive public services – because the broad idea generates wide party political and public sector support.

Policymaking is about turning these broad aims into specific policies. In our paper, we set out a framework to think this process through, from identifying an aim, to using evidence to inform the selection of projects to fund and support. Some specific policies may differ under a devolved or independent Scotland, but the thought process stays the same.  

First, we set out our aims. A clear definition of prevention and a set of detailed aims aids engagement with the public and the government’s policymaking partners. It helps produce a common set of expectations. It helps maximise the ability of a government to identify the most relevant evidence, when it seeks to learn from pilot projects and international experience. 

This is difficult to do with ‘prevention’, which can mean anything from inoculating a whole population against a virus, to providing ‘crisis intervention’ to a small group. It can mean providing education and support or regulating behaviour. It is about identifying the root causes of problems, which is easier for many diseases than ‘wicked’ social problems. It is about how ‘decisive’ you want to be in a short space of time, and how you want to balance aims, such as between reducing inequalities or costs (at least when you can’t do both).

The Scottish Government addresses this problem through the National Performance Framework, which provides broad strategic objectives combined with a set of measures to gauge the success of prevention (and other) policies. It then invites local authorities, in partnership with public bodies, the voluntary and private sector, and service users – through Community Planning Partnerships – to produce Single Outcome Agreements which describe how these objectives will be met in each local area (there are 32).

In this sense, the Scottish Government has two broad aims: to pursue prevention projects and to make policy in a particular way, summed up in terms like ‘co-production’. Prevention policy results from Scottish Government direction, coupled with local plans produced in partnership with a range of participants. These aims can reinforce each other, when cooperation produces a high commitment to co-produced objectives, and/or undermine each other, when a proliferation of plans produces a wide range of meanings of prevention.

Second, we seek evidence to help clarify our aims and inform our decisions. Evidence can be drawn from past experience, pilot projects in our own country or policies pursued in others. The Scottish Government has an interesting double-role: to identify what evidence is relevant, based on its own aims; and, to translate evidence into lessons that are relevant to other participants. A commitment to co-production creates a commitment to  understand what drives local policymakers and what information is relevant to them, given the constraints they face (including budget and time) and what drives them to act. It also prompts us to focus as much on the evidence of successful delivery arrangements as successful policy interventions. This is a fundamental issue when we seek to learn lessons from other projects: are we learning about the policy solution or the way in which the solution is understood and used, more or less competently, in particular areas?

Third, we use our judgement. The identification of ‘success’ is a political judgement based on our aims and beliefs. Many projects quickly develop good reputations based on these, rather than ‘scientific’, criteria. We outline a framework to ensure that a sufficient amount of relevant evidence is gathered before a project is deemed successful. However, many projects may not live up to this minimum standard, particularly if we want to learn quickly to address pressing problems. Consequently, evidence-gathering is no substitute for political choice based on limited evidence – and that choice may vary markedly across 32 local areas. This is evidence-based policymaking for the real world. 

Download the full paper A Framework to Decide 'What Works' in Prevention Policy.

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Paul Cairney's picture
post by Paul Cairney
University of Stirling
21st February 2014
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