Why Public Policy Observatories Are More Complicated (and Vital) Than Ever

Why Public Policy Observatories Are More Complicated (and Vital) Than Ever

Sarah Chaytor

Six months into the second phase of IPPO, I have been reflecting on the project thus far and on my role as Co-Principal Investigator and Strategic Engagement Director in helping to identify common themes, policy challenges, and opportunities for greater collaboration and joining up across the UK’s research-policy ecosystem. In particular, I’ve been mulling over some of the practical considerations shaping our work as a policy observatory, working in an increasingly complex policy landscape.

Broadening Our Scope

IPPO was first established at the height of the pandemic. The UK Government was grappling with an unprecedented crisis. Knowledge of Covid-19 and its wide-ranging impacts across society was limited. This meant IPPO was working in a context of high demand for evidence, with a single broad focus: addressing the harms of Covid. In our second phase, we have broadened our scope to add workstreams from place and spatial inequalities, net zero, and socio-economic inequalities to that of Covid recovery. This necessitates a much broader focus and means we are addressing policy challenges that are not only complex but deeply entrenched in our society. The evidence base is much wider and the policy demand more dispersed. So we are working at a greater and more diffuse scale, requiring intensified efforts to get ‘under the skin’ of policy evidence needs.

Crisis? Which Crisis?

This is made more complicated by working in the context of a ‘perma-omni-crisis’, something which has been stressed by policymakers from the Welsh government, to the Greater London Authority. The continued impact of Covid, widening inequalities, the climate crisis, concerns over the implications of AI, and a cost of living crisis exacerbated by geopolitical events – to name just a few – mean that policymakers are increasingly firefighting on all fronts. All of this is compounded by the severe strain on public finances and policymakers needing to do more with less. This can make it challenging to cut through the daily firefighting to explore and response to evidence needs. At the same time, these growing challenges reinforce the need for strengthening evidence use in policymaking.

It’s the Implementation, Stupid

Our conversations with governments over the past months suggest that demand for evidence to support policymaking is growing all the time (although this is not necessarily matched by capacity to access and use evidence). Developing policies to address complex societal challenges is difficult enough in itself. But we are also hearing that a further challenge is that of policy implementation – something particularly emphasised in our conversations with Stormont. Even if governments are clear (and evidence-informed) about what they should do, turning policy ideas into change on the ground remains highly challenging. We need to consider how evidence use can support this to inform not only the what, but the how – and to capture lessons from implementation that can be useful for the future.

Definitions of Evidence

This has also prompted us to start considering different forms of evidence in our synthesis work. Academic research evidence will of course always remain a critical source of robust expert knowledge. But we are finding increasing interest – particularly from regional authorities and local government – in understanding what policy innovations have been developed elsewhere – around the UK and especially around the globe which can provide a rich source of knowledge on policy implementation. We are also exploring how to take greater account of lived experience within evidence synthesis – which raises complex questions not only about integrating different forms of evidence but also about how to engage with communities in responsible ways.

Multiplying the Double Helix

IPPO’s ‘double helix’ method is based on a continuous iteration between policy ‘demand’ and evidence ‘supply’. Put another way, it’s about finding the ‘right place, right time’ moment where evidence can usefully be synthesised to meet a specific policy need. It will be no surprise to say this is much neater on paper than in practice! As an observatory established to inform governments across the UK, we have also found that we need to iterate between demand in different parts of the policy ecosystem – identifying where there are common themes across different UK government departments, between the UK’s four national governments, and across local and regional government. At the same time, we are synthesising a global evidence base to inform specific UK policy challenges. The twin strands of our double helix thus become multiplied. This necessitates highly agile working as well as the need to sometimes take a leap of faith on where commonalities are emerging to identify evidence needs.

It’s Good to Talk

This has also reinforced the importance of convening as a key element of IPPO’s work – including convening different policy and other stakeholders to explore policy challenges, evidence needs, and potential solutions at different levels of government. Providing such discussion space can be a powerful way to surface new insights and strengthen evidence use in policymaking. It also remains the case that producing evidence ‘products’ to support policymaking isn’t enough in itself – exploring them through dialogue and conversation is often the most useful way to actually enable evidence use. So we are increasingly focused on roundtables not only to surface evidence needs, but also to consider how, once produced, evidence synthesis can be applied by policy stakeholders. 

So what’s next? We are continuing to develop roundtables (details on the website) as well as a public events programme for the autumn. This will include a series exploring new methodologies and approaches to evidence use, kicking off in September; and a set of ‘what works where’ roundtables to share lessons from policy implementation. We are also exploring variations on the roundtable theme, with different approaches to convening stakeholders and sharing evidence through conversation (including borrowing models developed through the CAPE project). We will deliver different kinds of evidence reviews – from rapid assessments that can be delivered in weeks to global policy scans delivered by our partner INGSA, to fuller systematic reviews. 

The experience of IPPO-2 thus far has confirmed to us that synthesising evidence to inform policymaking remains a hugely endeavour. How we mobilise that synthesis to systematically integrate it with policymaking is the real prize.

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