In our latest blog, Director General Ed Humpherson looks at the importance of government evaluation in light of the Evaluation Task Force ‘Policy that Works’ conference.

There are lots of good reasons to love evaluation. It provides evidence of what works; it supports good policy; it builds the skills and reputation of analysts; it helps scrutiny. 

But I love evaluation for another reason too. Evaluation, done well, is fundamental to changing the way government in the UK works. 

This week the Evaluation Task Force is running one of the biggest ever conferences on government evaluation. So it’s a great time to celebrate evaluation, and my reasons for loving it.  

In a recent speech, Bronwen Maddox, the Institute for Government’s Director, set out a compelling case for why government needs to change. She highlighted the challenges of rotation of officials, moving on for career advancement so they don’t build grounded expertise in their subject matter. She talked of a lack of accountability. And she said these things combined to create an air of “unreality” to the way Government approached key challenges.  

In some ways this critique is exaggerated. There are lots of examples of officials with grounded expertise, taking responsibility for their decisions and implementation, and understanding the realities of the policy problems they are addressing. But there are enough cases where the critique is fair for us all to take it seriously. I saw it when I was looking at the value for money of Government programmes when I was at the National Audit Office. And I see it now in our work at the Office for Statistics Regulation. 

Evaluation is for me a great antidote to these problems. By committing to evaluation, as it is doing through the Evaluation Task Force, Government is investing in corporate memory. It lays down the groundwork for a commitment to gathering and retaining evidence of what works, and, crucially, how and why it works. By committing to evaluation, Government is creating an intelligent form of accountability – not the theatre of blame and finger-pointing, but of a clear-headed consideration of what has actually happened as policy is implemented. And by a relentless focus on real-world evidence, evaluation combats Maddox’s air of unreality. 

It aligns with a lot of what we champion at the Office for Statistics Regulation. We have emphasised the importance of analytical leadership in Government – how Government and society benefits when the analytical function is not simply a passive provider of numbers, but a key partner in the work of Government. And this requires the analytical function to be full of leaders, who can articulate the benefits of analysis, and make it relevant and useful – not just to policy makers but to a wider public.  

And we champion public confidence in data produced by Government. This public confidence is secured by focusing on trustworthiness, quality and value. 

Analytical leadership, and the triumvirate of trustworthiness, quality and value, are central to securing the benefits of evaluation. Analytical leadership matters because to do great evaluation requires clarity of vision, strong objectives, and long-term organisational commitment. 

And trustworthiness, quality and value are central to good evaluation: 

  • Trustworthiness is having confidence in the people and organisations that produce statistics and data – being open to learning what works and what doesn’t, and open about the use of all evaluation, giving advance notice about plans and sharing the findings. The commitments to transparency that the Evaluation Task Force is making are crucial in this regard.
  • Quality means data and methods that produce assured statistics – it ensures the evaluation question is well defined and the right data and robust methods are selected, tested, and explained.
  • Value supports society’s needs for information – it means evaluation can be impactful, addressing the right questions and ensuring the correct understanding of the evidence.

Of course, I don’t claim for a second that evaluation is the sole or perfect panacea for the challenges of government. That too would be an exaggeration. But I do think it has tremendous potential to help shift the way government works. Led in the right way, and adhering to the principles of TQV, evaluation can make a big difference to the way government operates. 

That is why I applaud the energy and focus of the Evaluation Task Force, which has galvanised interest and attention. It’s why I like the Evaluation Task Force’s website and why I celebrate this week’s conference. 

And it is why I love evaluation.