17 June 2015

Why and how 'what works' is important for Scotland

As Chief Researcher at the Scottish Government, Zoe Ferguson was instrumental in establishing What Works Scotland. Here, she reflects on the journey so far.

In the spring on 2013 I first became aware of the development of the What Works network. It seemed like a good opportunity to boost our evidence resources, but more important than the money per se was the profile of the initiative and the opportunity to shine a light on an area of pressing need. There could have been any number of proposals but we chose to focus on the cross government effort on public service reform, a) to make the most of the investment and,
b) to think about how our approaches to evidence could help us to break down policy silos.

What soon became clear was that we would need this to be distinctive in Scotland if it was going to work. Firstly we wanted something which would increase the pace and scale of reform (agreed through Christie) not revisit and reopen the reform agenda from first principles. We also wanted something which would support 'the Scottish approach'  i.e. would have as much if not more focus on how things work rather than identifying what works. So, where many of the centres in England focus on ranking and costing interventions What Works Scotland seeks to work in partnership with communities, looking at how to implement existing evidence and create a journey of shared learning. We worked with the ESRC to agree what this would mean to maintain academic independence and the notion of common currency 'what works' is seeking to promote.

One of the most important things I think What Works Scotland does is to embody the principles it is seeking to promote in public services and communities. At its launch in June 2014 John Swinney described What Works Scotland as a practical asset rather than anything we might think of as a research centre. It is defined as a partnership, moves from defining problems to shaping solutions, builds confidence and capability of professionals and communities, is independent to challenge received wisdom and engages directly with communities to make a difference in people's lives.

A key initial challenge then for the team has been to start from a basis of understanding the strengths of the communities they will be working with and to build the relationships required to effectively co-produce solutions. They have spent countless hours with the four case study areas to understand local need, identify priorities, understand the landscape and where they can add value. Those have been invaluable hours and are paying dividends now in the quality of the relationships on which What Works Scotland rests.

What is beginning to emerge is conversations and thinking which look a bit different and an acknowledgement of being pushed to think harder and with more active focus on what needs to change and how.

The team has a number of thematic work streams which support the case studies and a planned method and cycle of activities in local areas. This is important in terms of the rigour of evidence for wider application. What might be missed in the meantime and is urgent in terms of the need now for change is sharing those emerging conversations and thinking.

So where the team might not be comfortable to report these 'stories' as evidence I think they can play a valuable role in how What Works Scotland influences change on the ground. I would encourage all of the What Works Scotland network - in the broadest terms - to share their learning and experiences via blogs etc.

Let's make this a space for all of those who share a stake in the solutions. Be open, be honest, be involved!

Zoe has 20 years experience in public policy in Scotland. She began her career as a researcher at Glasgow University and after a short stint in consultancy joined the Scottish Government in 2000.

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