So what works in getting research used in decision-making?

We all want our work to be useful, and there have been many studies asking policy makers and other stakeholders what the barriers and facilitators are to using research.

But how confident are we that our favourite approaches actually work?  What is the science of using science knowledge? And do we know what works in getting research used in making policy ?  

We have partnered with the Wellcome Trust,  the Alliance for Useful Evidence and the EPPI-Centre at UCL to understand how research evidence can be best used in decision-making.

The study focuses on better development and use of a sound evidence base in government policy, and other decision making. It is intended to develop the evidence base for what we at the What Works Centre for Wellbeing can do to support evidence informed decision making to improve wellbeing.

→ Summary

→Full report

The study identified six types of activity used to support evidence informed decision making and looked at the evidence based that underpins them.  The study team then looked at what other social science research suggests could be promising for supporting evidence informed decision making.

reserach uptake diagram

We are reviewing our plans and theory of change as a result of this study working with the wider What Works Network some of whom are doing trials in this area.  We hope that these insights prove useful more widely and add to the evidence base in the field. 

This project included:

  • a systematic review (a review of reviews) of the field of research use by the EPPI-Centre
  • A scoping review of what the wider social science literature tells us about the mechanisms for the use of research evidence in decision-making by the EPPI-Centre
  • a summary policy report summarising the key findings with discussion and case studies by the Alliance for Useful Evidence
  • a conference to explore what approaches work in enabling the use of research by policy makers, practitioners and members of the public at Wellcome Trust on 12th April 2016


What works?

 The rise of ‘experimental’ government

ThExperimentalism in CSQis week David Halpern, National Adviser on What Works  makes the case for innovation to be embedded in our work and not confined to new initiatives or programmes in Civil Service Quarterly.

He calls for us all to evaluate and adapt our practice on a continual basis and shares how a more robust level of evaluation can become a transformational tool.

Our Pioneers are doing just that and we want you to be bold and deliberate in your practice .

This week’s pioneer case study showcases Think Good, Feel Good – A Whole School Approach to Emotional Health & Wellbeing across Shropshire schools.

→ be one of our wellbeing pioneers

Our evidence programme call with our commissioning partners ESRC has now closed and our panel is at work considering the applications. Thank you for your interest, it is really inspiring to hear about so much great research in the UK.  If you want to share your work or find out about what others are doing please do use our growing online forum.

Also a reminder that Lord O’Donnell is currently recruiting the Chair and Board of the Centre closing date for applications for Chair is 2nd February and Trustees 16th February.



Wellbeing evidence around the globe – Lord Gus O’Donnell in Australia

GusWhen I helped to launch, in London and Bristol, the What Works centre on Wellbeing I said we wanted to gather evidence from around the globe. So it is fitting that I have spent the last week on the other side of the world urging people to pass on their experiences and learning on wellbeing. More specifically I have been in Australia meeting senior officials at the Federal and State level, think tanks and private sector representatives to explain the importance of focusing on wellbeing and behaviour change.

At lectures and seminars in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne, I  explained  the importance of broad measures of wellbeing and their superiority to activity measures like GDP as indicators of the success of governments and countries. I find that explaining that UK  GDP is now enhanced by increased illegal drug trade and prostitution, while the value of volunteering is not, gets the point across quite vividly! My visit played out against the G20 taking g20logoplace in Brisbane, right in the middle of my Australian visit. President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping had turned the focus onto climate change to the discomfort of their host Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Nevertheless the G20 was attempting to enhance wellbeing by stimulating infrastructure spending and employment and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In Australia the government is attempting to eradicate its deficit of 2.5%GDP , rather low compared to the levels in UK and many other European countries. Having got through the financial crisis relatively unscathed there has not been a sense of a burning platform. This, together with some interesting complications thrown up in the last Australian federal election in the influence of minor parties, especially in the Senate or upper house,  has made it harder to make radical changes but it has created a desire to understand how to deliver ‘ better for less’. Hence there was a lot of interest in the measures implemented by the UK government to reduce the deficit from 11%GDP to half that level and particularly the impact on public services and public servants. There was an interesting thread through all of the conversations that tied together the refocusing back on fundamental questions about the value and purpose of government in the first place, which is a necessary part of the broader wellbeing approach, and consequential decisions about the shape and performance of government and the behaviour and skills of public servants in the 21st century.

I emphasised the unusual nature of the UK recovery which was employment strong but accompanied by a stagnation in real wages. The nature of the problems reinforces one key conclusion from a wellbeing approach to macro policy- namely that steady, consistent (and sometimes lower) growth is better than increasingly unsustainable booms and busts. Although there has been some work, and considerably interest, within various departments, including the Australian Treasury over recent years, the concepts and practice of “wellbeing” are still only used rarely in Australia and have yet to establish themselves as a consistent and influential part of the wider political and policy discussion.

Deloitte Social Progress IndexHowever while I was there Deloitte produced a paper on Unlocking true growth,G20: Insights from the Social Progress Index 2014

Their index is an unweighted average of many indicators but includes no measures of subjective wellbeing. Among the G20 their index puts Netherlands at the top but then the Scandinavians, as usual, do very well. Australia ranks above the UK which in turn beats the United States. Although I have questions about aspects of the methodology, it is good to see recognition that “growth on its own without social progress is an empty goal.” The Australians are also beginning to explore behaviour change techniques. Rory Gallagher and Alex Gyani,  as part of the Behavioural Insight team, are based in New South Wales in the Department of Premier and Cabinet and are running a number of projects to demonstrate the merits of the new approaches.

For example they have tested various ways to speed up the payment of taxes and fines, saving the NSW governmentBIT logo millions of dollars. They have found quicker, more effective ways to get people back to work after injuries.  They are investigating how to improve handling of domestic violence and child obesity, both particularly challenging problems in Australia. But probably most important of all, they are running Master classes to train officials in applying behavioural approaches.

I was also fortunate enough to meet Shlomo Benartzi, a highly respected behavioural economist from UCLA. He explained his latest research on digital solutions to key policy problems, which will be published next year.

what works network logoAt each  venue I have described the role of the various What Works centres that are already up and running. And I have explained what we hope will be  provided by the Wellbeing centre in terms of agreeing common methodologies and collecting and sharing examples of what works and what doesn’t. Of course we need to explain that what works in one country or community might not work in another.

At my Sydney University lecture I used the example of various messages attempting to persuade people to sign up asUniofSydney organ donors.  You can hear the podcast of the lecture  (the podcast link is on the right of the linked page).

The Australian audience felt the positive message about saving lives would work best whereas in the UK the reciprocal message- if you would want an organ donation if needed, why not donate yourself- worked best. Nevertheless as we collect evidence of such experiments around the world we may well be able to determine which particular policies work universally. I would like to thank Martin Stewart-Weeks and Deloitte, Cisco and Telstra who supported the visit, for helping me to get across these messages to a wide audience in Australia.

One of the events at which I spoke was the 2014 Spann Oration, given in Sydney for the Institute of Public Administration in NSW.  The Oration, given each year, is in honour of the work of Professor Richard Spann, one of the Australia’s leading public administration academics.  You can find the Oration here, published by The Mandarin, a new online magazine in Australia that concentrates on issues of government reform, the public sector and public policy.

Read a broader summary of some of the main themes and topics from the weeks’ conversations and meetings.


Videos from our launch events 29th October 2014 – Part 1 London

The What Works Centre for Wellbeing was announced by our interim Chair Lord Gus O’Donnell on 29th October 2014 at two events, in London and Bristol.  Here are the video of the speakers from the London part of the day with sessions from:

  • Lord O’Donnell chair of the centre’s development group
  • BIS Minister Jo Swinson
  • BT’s Group Director Wellbeing Dr Paul Litchfield
  • Professor Kevin Fenton from Pubilc Health England
  • Government’s National What Works Advisor Dr David Halpern
  • Chief Executive of the Economic and Social Research Council Professor Jane Elliot

Also published for the London part of the event on the 29th was BIS research into the drivers of workplace wellbeing and its links with business performance and the ESRC specifications for the Centre’s evidence programme.

What can I do?

Announcement of the What Works Centre for Wellbeing Lord Gus O’Donnell, Chair of development group for the Centre

Employee wellbeing and productivity  Jo Swinson, Minister for Employment Relations and Consumer Affairs

Wellbeing – A company approach  Dr Paul Litchfield, Group Director Wellbeing, BT  

Wellbeing and public health  Prof Kevin Fenton, National Director Health and Wellbeing, Public Health England 

What works centres  Dr David Halpern, What Works National Advisor 

Getting impact from research Prof Jane Elliott, Chief Executive Economic Social Research Council