Professional networks for evidence-informed policy and practice

March 28, 2018

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By Pippa Coutts, Research and Policy Manager at the Alliance for Useful Evidence

It is generally recognised that there is a gap between the production of high quality research evidence and its use in policy and practice. This is one of the reasons behind the international growth of evidence intermediaries including the What Works Network and the UKCRC Public Health Research Centres of Excellence in the UK.

Carnegie UK Trust’s survey of UK policy makers and practitioners in 2013 illustrated this gap: the majority of respondents trusted academic research, but used it less than evidence from government, the third sector and think tanks.

Five years on, we are in what’s been called a post-truth era, and the Trust went back to policy makers and practitioners to ask about evidence use now.  They found people still value of evidence in decision-making, but also made the point that some evidence is “useful but not very practical”.

Decision-makers can find research evidence too general for their use: they need to rework it to apply it to their particular contexts and issue areas For example, if you are a commissioning a new service, of course, you are looking for the most effective intervention, but local politicians, providers and people are all likely to scrutinise the decision. So local level intelligence, cost benefit information and stakeholders’ views are all a part of the decision, too.

Given the many barriers that exist to using evidence – the recent Carnegie survey highlighted lack of time is key constraint – what can we do to support people to use evidence?

Our understanding of how to bridge the gap between knowledge production and use has increased as we have recognised that research doesn’t speak for itself. Making research useful is an intensely social process. Respondents in the survey reiterated this as they said they “learn a lot from informal discussions with colleagues” and from discussion with others”.

There is evidence from social science that interacting with others around evidence encourages people to use evidence. Personal ties and social influence can encourage people to use evidence, because our behaviour is affected by what other people do. There are examples of the persuasive power of local opinion leaders changing professional practice to affect outcomes in hospital settings[1]. Social influence tends to have a greater effect if you talking to someone you see as being like you (although beware of confirmation bias). To harness the potential of social influence, organisations have set up networks of champions, to communicate evidence and the importance of evidence. For example, the Evidence Champions for funders and commissioners of young people’s projects in London – Project Oracle; Evidence Champions for Policing; and the Champions in the Alliance for Useful Evidence.

Learning from behavioural insights suggests that one way to encourage change is to spread the message that the desired behaviour is the norm – that policymakers and practitioners need, and frequently use, good quality evidence to inform their work. Professional networks can be help with this.. Based on the importance of professional networks, the Alliance for Useful Evidence (with Professor Jonathan Shepherd) recently gathered leaders in health, policing and teaching to sign an Evidence Declaration for professional bodies. It says the members of professional bodies are expected to ‘take full account of evidence and evidence informed guidance in their daily decisions and advice to individuals and organisations’.

Professional bodies, networks and collaborations can give people a chance to use evidence, not least through the discussions with colleagues and others which was so important to the survey respondents. These social mechanisms can support policy professionals and practitioners to access and make sense of evidence, bridging the gap between its production and use.



[1] Flodgren, G. et al (2011) Local opinion leaders: effects on professional practice and health care outcomes Cochrane Database of System Reviews 8 (8)