Earlier this year, the European Commission renewed its commitment to promoting child well-being and made a recommendation entitled “Investing in children — breaking the cycle of disadvantage” (PDF) as part of the Social Investment Package to promote that goal. One of the guidelines was to strengthen the use of evidence-based policy. This particular recommendation is noteworthy, because it represents one of the first times that the European Commission has specifically advocated the use of evidence in policy making.
The field of education initiated several research synthesis projects early in the century, including the Best Evidence Encyclopedia and the What Works Clearinghouse in the US. More recently, the European Commission established the online European Platform for Investing in Children (EPIC), which screens and summarises evidence-based information related to children and their families across the EU and also provides a pan-European mechanism for individuals to share lessons learned in child policy and practice.
The demand for information about what works in the field of child and family services has grown due to the desire to ensure that tighter budgets are used effectively, coupled with the greater accountability that decisionmakers face. In the early 1990s when the Cochrane Collaboration began gathering and pooling medical studies, an analogous project in the field of child and family policy would have been unthinkable due to a dearth of studies that would have met the criteria for high-quality evidence. But now there is a growing supply of research accumulating to inform child and family policy, and that research is increasingly meeting high standards of evidence. It employs rigorous methods, such as randomised trials, and there is now a sufficient quantity and quality of evidence to enable the aggregation of evidence-information in a systematic way.
As the supply of rigorous studies in the field of child and family policy has grown, so too have the resources that summarise evidence-based information for decision makers. In the United States, at least nine evidence-based practice platforms (EBPs) present information and EBP resources that include evidence that relates to child and family services there. In the EU, EPIC provides information on policies and practices which can help children and families cope with the current challenges which emerged due to the European economic climate. A central component of this project is an online repository of evidence-based practice. The “Practices that Work” section of EPIC gathers, reviews and summarises evidence on effective strategies across the 28 member states.
Today's austerity measures are unprecedented in the history of the EU. In 2013, EU leaders cut its seven-year budget for the first time ever. Additionally, major stakeholders such as Eurochild have noted that the well-being of children across the EU has deteriorated in the last year as result of the economic crisis. Recognition of the impact of the financial crisis on children, and the lingering austere economic climate, has led public and private supporters of child and family services to further scrutinise expenditures. Decision makers want to ensure that their limited funds are being used for policies and services that are effective. At the same time that funding for child and family services has come under strain, policymakers at all levels of government have also been subject to greater accountability than in the past.
Decision makers now have much easier access to a growing amount of evidence-based information related to children's issues than in the past. A number of considerations can help put this information to best use:
First, even though the supply and quality of evidence-based information is greater now than ever before, it is not necessarily the case that evidence-based information should be given more weight than other factors that contribute to decision making. Evidence is an important piece of the policy making puzzle, but other factors, such as political considerations, values, funding and experience will necessarily also need to contribute to decision making. Innovation also matters greatly, as does facilitating the exchange of experience and practical lessons learned. Still, evidence has a place at the policy making table, and platforms such as EPIC are but one of the strategies for making evidence more useful for decision making.
Second, the supply and quality of information is highly variable across sub-fields of child policy. In an age of burgeoning availability of information, decision makers can take advantage of evidence platforms to help understand what is the “best available evidence” that relates to children's issues.
Third, decision makers will need to adapt evidence to meet local conditions, as evidence from around the EU is generated in differing contexts. The User Registry located within the “Practices that Work” section of the EPIC website enables the capture of a number of practices and information on innovative practices to be shared with users and stakeholders. In doing so, it recognises that a variety of approaches may be chosen by stakeholders and practitioners.
Finally, decision makers can contribute to better policy making by sharing experiences and innovations in children's policy, aggregating lessons learned in using evidence in the same way that the research evidence itself is aggregated. Evidence-based platforms (EBPs) such as EPIC recognise the importance of collective experience with features to capture and share this type of information in addition to aggregating the research evidence.
A way forward may be for not-for-profit organisations and charities to encourage funders (be they government or alternative sources) to increase the share of funds available for evaluations. This approach would help meet requirements to provide evidence from evaluations where it is needed, and strengthen the evidence base. In countries such as the United States, approaches to evaluations have shifted from a pass/fail typology to a focus on Continuous Quality Improvement and program improvement. Evidence-based platforms favour such an approach, which can help individual programs and entire fields of intervention to become more effective through evaluation and evidence.
Dr Rebecca Kilburn is the co-Principal Investigator of the European Platform for Investing in Children project at RAND. She served as Director of the Promising Practices Network (PPN) on Children, Families and Communities for nearly 15 years. In this capacity, she helped develop the evidence criteria and processes used to conduct reviews, and she has overseen hundreds of systematic reviews of child and family programmes. During her 20 years at RAND, much of Dr Kilburn's research has examined the effects of public and private investments in childhood.
Dr Michael Frearson is a Research Leader for education and skills at RAND Europe. He has more than 15 years' experience working with schools, further and higher education and work-based learning. Michael has directed research on children, young people, employment and skills and conducted high-profile evaluations of flagship public policy interventions for children and young people, such as the Play Pathfinders and Play Builders programme and the Learner Home Access to Technology programme (for the UK Department for Education).
This blog first appeared as a RAND Europe technical note. Read the full version on rand.org.
This commentary originally appeared on The Alliance for Useful Evidence on December 2, 2013. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.