November 2, 2017

The Intersection of Government Innovation and Evidence

Row of hanging lightbulbs

The drive for evidence-based decision-making and the need for innovation in government have rapidly accelerated in recent years. Despite overlapping goals, it is not always clear how closely the two agendas are aligned. Is the creation of more and better evidence leading to more innovation? And fundamentally, is all this activity leading to better decision-making in government?

The reform agendas of evidence and innovation

The drive for evidence-based decision-making and the need for innovation in government have accelerated over the past few years.

Government innovation is now an accepted and mainstreamed concept. You can find departments, ministries, labs, and other units tasked with spurring innovation in cities, regions, and nations across the globe. In concert, there are numerous academic institutions, consultancies, and foundations working to support these efforts.

Sat alongside this is the evidence-based agenda. It has built-up considerable momentum over the past 10 years. In the UK, for instance, we have seen the creation of the What Works Network, evidence centers in policy areas that receive public spending of more than £200 billion. In the US, there have been numerous evidence initiatives, including the suite of Obama reforms, such as the i3 education program (pdf). There are also organizations outside of government working to improve the generation and use of evidence, such as the Alliance for Useful Evidence and the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, providing networks and forums for debate. There are also clearinghouses, like the Campbell Collaboration, spanning different policy domains.  

The two reform agendas of innovation and evidence have very similar goals of improving government, creating better public services, positively impacting social and economic outcomes, and saving money. They are also inextricably entwined. R&D is, after all, a traditional cornerstone of a functioning innovation system. If we fail to test and experiment with new innovations, we do not know what is working, and what isn’t.

Despite the same goals, the question that lingers is, how aligned are these two agendas? Or put more simply, is the creation of more and better evidence leading to more innovation?

The impact of evidence on innovation

The answer to this is not abundantly clear. Firstly, few of the organizations that generate and share evidence have innovation as an explicit goal—instead they aim to improve decision-making. Coupled with this, little is known about the evidence of evidence, or put another way, few evaluations and studies exist to show whether evidence institutions, such as clearinghouses, are effective in changing practice (pdf). Similar challenges exist when trying to measure innovation levels in government.

Of course, not all evidence needs to inform innovation. There are a host of decisions that need to be made that are entirely separate from innovation, and it has been said before that government does not need to innovate all the time (pdf). Yet, it feels like a missed opportunity for the evidence and innovation agenda to develop in parallel, without exploring the links between them. Evidence informs innovation, and the innovation process creates evidence: the two agendas are symbiotic and explicably intertwined. Yet confusion still lingers as to how to align evidence with innovation..

Evidence for innovation

There could be value in the evidence agenda looking more closely at the decision-making process. Who is making the decision, why, when, and what is their goal? To achieve this, decision-making could be explored through an innovation lens.

Figure 1: Nesta Seven Stages of Innovation

Nesta, the UK’s innovation agency, uses the innovation spiral shown above, and it provides a useful starting point. It breaks down the stages of innovation, from problem recognition, idea development, through to systems change. The decision taken at each stage will require different evidence. For example, something that is just an idea, and has not yet been developed, will undergo different testing, using different methodologies and generating different types of evidence, than a policy, program, or practice that is well-established and operational in multiple locations.

To help align the types of evidence needed at different stages of the innovation process, Nesta uses a Standards of Evidence framework

Figure 2: Nesta Standards of Evidence

The Standards of Evidence framework above brings products and services at different stages of the innovation process in line with academically recognized levels of evidence, but at a pace and approach that is appropriate to their individual development. This usefully guides evaluation design and helps ensure there is proportionality in the evidence expected of innovations, particularly those at an early stage. This framework is used to assess the impact of Nesta’s grant programs and investments, and it has since been adopted by other funders (pdf), such as the Big Lottery Fund and the global education company, Pearson Plc.

Evidence and innovation in social programs

Encouragingly there are examples of evidence and innovation being leveraged together in government.

One example is NYC Opportunity, formerly known as the New York City Center for Economic Opportunity, an award-winning poverty alleviation program. NYC opportunity creates, funds, and supports anti-poverty programs, with data and evaluation at their core. With an in-house evaluation team, and through independent evaluations, NYC Opportunity rigorously evaluates programs, and this data is used to decide whether to improve and continue the program, or to eliminate it entirely. Not only is evidence used to innovate and experiment, data on a program’s success also helps ensure its survival in the face of budget cuts.

Another example is Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities program. It currently supports 95 American cities in their efforts to enhance their use of data and evidence to improve services, inform local decision-making, and engage residents. There is also a certification process, enabling cities to benchmark their use of data in programs and policies, and be ranked as silver, gold, or platinum. This focus on data is having a real impact for city residents (pdf). For example, a randomized controlled trial (RCT) in New Orleans led to more low-income residents receiving free medical check-ups; in San Jose, a message informed by behavioral science led to a 146-percent reduction in illegal dumping; and in Seattle, using and applying data helped overhaul the contractual arrangements in homeless service provision, leading to more people finding permanent homes.

What lessons the evidence and innovation agendas can share

Frameworks like those developed and used by Nesta help to align evidence with the innovation process, yet more is needed to ensure that both reform agendas learn from each other.Too little is still known about what impact the evidence agenda is having on government innovation. And too little is known about innovation in government, with a lack of data to assess and measure innovation levels.

Even when looked at as two separate reform agendas, the worlds of innovation and evidence share many similarities. Both are not rational, linear processes. Both attempt to change complex systems. Both are contested terms, open to multiple interpretations, and are highly contextual. Both encounter issues of skills, capabilities, capacity, resources, and awareness.  

We need to develop our understanding of how the two reform agendas of innovation and evidence can work together. The end goal of the evidence agenda should not be more and better evidence, but better decision-making. And as much as possible and appropriate, this should spur more and better innovation.

The views expressed in the Government Innovators Network blog are those of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, or of Harvard University.

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