Public sector ‘must be given power to innovate’

31 Jan 18

The public sector must be “empowered to innovate”, the new Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden said this week.

Speaking at an event to mark five years of the Cabinet Office’s What Works Network on Monday, he said there had been significant progress in the field of evidence-based policy but there was still more work to do.

“There are lots of areas of public spending and practice where the evidence base is weak,” Dowden said at the event at the Institute for Government.

“We must empower the public sector to innovate. It is essential to improving the effectiveness of public service delivery.”

The What Works Network was established in 2013 to develop an evidence base on public sector policy.

Ten independent What Works centres have been established looking at evidence in range of areas including education, criminal justice, local economic growth and health and social care.

A Cabinet Office-based team also works to commission studies to fill gaps in the evidence base.

Together they have conducted over 288 evidence reviews and commissioned or supported over 160 trials, according to a progress report published this week.

Among its findings, the What Works Network has established that:

  • extending broadband to an area can improve local productivity wages, although effects are bigger in more urban areas
  • antibiotics should not be prescribed for acute sinusitis, which is usually viral
  • wellbeing is higher for people who gradually transition into retirement through reduced hours or by taking a part-time or ‘bridging’ job
  • class sizes of less than 20 can improve attainment (equivalent to around 3 months of progress over the course of a year)

However, a panel discussion at the event agreed it was difficult to translate the findings of the Work Works Network into change on the frontline.

Professor Gillian Leng, deputy chief executive and director of health and social at NICE, said: “Getting change to happen is the really hard bit. We’ve done a lot at NICE to think about some of those system barriers.”

Another panel member, Alex Murray, assistant chief constable at West Midlands Police and founder of the Society of Evidence Based Policing said evidence-based policy “pushes innovation”.

He also agreed that austerity had been a “huge driver” for the evidence-based movement.

Hailing five years of the What Works Network, Dr David Halpern, What Works national adviser, said: “Answering the question ‘What works?’ is hard work, but often a game changer.

“We’ve been asking this question in medicine for 50 years, and it’s saved countless lives. Now we’re asking it in schools, policing and economic growth polices, and its impact is proving equally large.”

Read PF’s interview with Dr David Halpern here

  • Vivienne Russell

    Vivienne Russell is managing editor of Public Finance magazine and

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