Using evidence: Greater Manchester case study

Over the past decade, Greater Manchester has pioneered a practical, evidence-based approach to local economic growth policies and programmes. This approach has included a wide collaboration of Greater Manchester public and private partners, spearheaded by the 10 local authorities that make up the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA) and since 2011, through the city-region’s combined authority

The 2009 Manchester Independent Economic Review (MIER) was a key moment in the city-region’s use of evidence in policy development. That evidence-led approach has now evolved to include the wider reform of public services. There are a series of good practice lessons for the use of evidence in policy-making that have been borne out through experience in Greater Manchester. Whilst emerging from very specific local circumstances in the city region, these are likely to have resonance with policy makers in other places who wish to make better use of evidence to support policy making and partnership working. These are examined throughout the case study document, and are summarised below.

Recognise that developing an evidence-led approach is a long-term project

Greater Manchester’s experience suggests that time and consistency of aspiration is necessary to create an ‘evidence ecosystem’ where evidence is asked for, created and acted upon. Moving towards this approach requires cultural change, which can begin quickly by the embedding of evidence within specific projects or processes. To be truly effective however, the development and use of evidence needs to be seen as a long-term process that is as much about leadership and developing effective decision-making structures – as well as the capacity to use them – as it is about undertaking robust pieces of research.

Create demand for evidence, don’t just create evidence

In order for evidence to be influential it needs to be seen as robust and useful by those best able to exert influence on policy. As such, it is crucial that demand for evidence from key decision makers is developed ahead of, or at least alongside, its supply. Evidence without demand is unlikely to move beyond documents, data and statistics into the sort of narratives that help get buy-in and deliver change. The best way to create demand is by getting those who will need to act on the evidence bought-in from the start. Ideally those who will need to act on the evidence should have a role in commissioning and funding the research so that they have a sense of ownership of the outcomes and feel more compelled to act on the basis of the evidence produced. In this way evidence gathering should lead into policy change and delivery.

Bring your partners along

Whilst technical knowledge is important in the development and use of evidence, it is only through the use of the right type and right amount of engagement that buy-in is achieved from a suitably wide range of organisations and individuals. Rarely in the development of local economic growth policies in the UK can one organisation act in isolation from its partners. The interdependencies between different parts of the system are simply too great. Rarer still can one individual armed with even the most robust piece of evidence ensure that the results are acted on. Without engagement, evidence can often be viewed with suspicion as being skewed towards the views of the organisation or individual that has produced it. Sitting down with partners to discuss, understand and agree the evidence base is a key tool in developing and delivering sustainable new ways of working.

Encourage external challenge

Opportunities to get the views of others, particularly those with an independent viewpoint – be they from academia, business or other parts of local or national government – should be welcomed wherever available. Externally verified evidence can help ensure that findings are viewed as high-quality, robust and independent, again helping avoid evidence being seen as skewed to the priorities of a particular organisation or individual. Externally verified and championed evidence also makes difficult findings more difficult to ignore by those responsible for acting on them. The panel of high-profile economists and business-leaders that guided the MIER was critically important in ensuring that evidence led to action.

Acknowledge and address negative findings

True evidence-based policy making needs to engage with negative as well as positive findings. Findings that show that historic approaches do not work or new proposals are flawed are at least as valuable as positive findings. MIER was instrumental in enhancing the way in which Greater Manchester engaged with evidence not least because of the ‘warts and all analysis’ that it presented. The Review challenged conventional wisdom in a number of areas and, as such, prompted a debate and the development of new consensus on the way forward for the city region.

Create compelling narratives

The right presentation is central to ensuring that evidence moves from the page and into live political discourse. Central to this is the establishment of a narrative that effectively conveys the thrust of the evidence base in a way that is accessible and engaging to as wide an audience as possible. The creation of compelling narratives built on a foundation of robust evidence have been at the heart of Greater Manchester’s most significant achievements in the use of evidence from the MIER to the recent devolution deal.

Use it or lose it

A keen understanding of the usefulness of an evidence-led approach, and a willingness by Greater Manchester’s political and officer leadership to drive though the difficult decisions it often results in, has ensured that evidence is not only sourced and mobilised, but acted upon. Mature political and officer level relationships between the 10 local authorities of GM, and other local and national agencies operating in the city, have also facilitated this. This has been essential to ensure that evidence development is not seen as a luxury, but central to the development and refinement of policy across the city. Ultimately, unless evidence is seen to be acted on, an evidence-based approach will quickly lose currency.

Shape your own destiny

To be truly transformative, those involved in local economic growth should always seek to develop evidence that is useful for understanding and responding to the long-term drivers of economic growth. Simply producing evidence that responds to externally imposed requirements (by central government or other funding bodies for example), is unlikely to generate real change. Since the 1980s, Greater Manchester has moved steadily away from responding reactively to national policy initiatives towards anticipating developments and leading its own growth and public service reform programmes. This approach has helped to develop a new proactive dialogue with central government aimed at going beyond the centrally imposed requirements of policies towards the development of ambitious and locally focused plans and initiatives. This has been achieved because Greater Manchester has invested time and resources in developing a sophisticated understanding of its own economic opportunities and needs.

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