Linda Butcher: If used wisely, the evidence can win the battle on policy

A recent campaign from a children's charity proves that strong statistics can lead to real change, writes our columnist

Linda Butcher
Linda Butcher

Campaigners often have an "ask" that is quite challenging, with a rationale for change that can be well evidenced, but also pretty complicated. Politicians and decision-makers have to deal with this kind of thing all the time and if they won't support you or agree to make the change you seek, what do you do? Is it possible to generate interest from others or to make your campaigns public-facing?

When I worked at Off the Streets and Into Work, a charity that later became part of Crisis, we developed clear proposals for services that would support people who were homeless and had multiple disadvantages to get their lives back on track. This was underpinned by evidence we had gathered by working with homeless people, the homelessness sector and with government departments.

Although our service proposals looked expensive, research and testing showed that in the long term they saved public money and were highly effective at helping people make positive and sustainable changes to their lives.

So what exactly were the problems? First, the savings would not necessarily be realised within the lifetime of the government of the day, and it wasn't easy to generate the political will and commitment when the payback to the public purse might benefit a different administration.

Second, even when we managed to gain political support at a high level, trying to retain this commitment was made harder by the fact that ministers come and go within the lifetime of a government, as we have seen recently in the July reshuffle. When I was at OSW, we had three different employment ministers in less than three years.

Third, we didn't really identify a way to make the issue connect with the wider public. Our target audience for influencing was usually government, because it has the responsibility to enact laws and policies, and to act in the interests of the people. But there are different challenges in making the case to the wider public.

For example, sharing the cost-benefit analysis of your expensive-looking services for people who are homeless or marginalised doesn't automatically win over the hearts and minds of others who might be feeling the pinch themselves. What we did in the end was to focus on working with the civil servants, who turned out to be the most constant, the most stable and, often, the most knowledgeable players in our sphere of work.

And finally, policy can be driven by many things, such as resources, ideology or evidence – and sometimes the evidence just doesn't win.

But there are some good examples of wins in this area that are worth looking at. As a result of a recent, highly successful campaign by the charity Action for Children, the emotional neglect of children is likely to be made illegal in England and Wales.

This campaign was built on well-researched evidence set out in a number of ways that enabled people – the public and politicians alike – to be informed and engaged. The hard evidence was matched with real-life stories that brought the human element into it in a way that statistics couldn't.

Linda Butcher is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation

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