Can evidence help make our Assembly better?

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In welcoming the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly, CES recognises the serious and complex social issues facing our new Executive and the pressure on Government to deliver swiftly, while embedding solutions for the long term.  

Here, our Director for Evidence Informed Policy, Majella McCloskey, gives her thoughts on how Government in Northern Ireland can successfully achieve outcomes for local people by implementing evidence-based policy solutions.

Evidence informing policy-making

Given the limited time and resources to make lives better in Northern Ireland, what can increase the chances of success? We believe a more systematic approach to using evidence throughout the decision-making process can make a big difference. This is an approach that has been used internationally in countries like South Africa and the United States to stretch scarce resources and learn quickly about whether programmes are making a difference.  

The US’ efforts were recently captured in a new report The-Power-of-Evidence-to-Drive-Americas-Progress-Results-for-America.pdf ( by Harvard academic Dr. Christina Ciocca Eller, making a compelling case for how basing policy decisions on evidence and data ultimately create solutions that work.  

Government investment in building and using evidence and data in American policy development has grown rapidly over the last 10 years and has demonstrated positive outcomes for the most disadvantaged.  

In Ireland and Northern Ireland our research system produces a lot of new knowledge, but bringing the right knowledge, at the right time, and in the right format to policy makers has been a persistent challenge.

‘Knowledge brokerage’ is a term that describes making evidence more usable by policy makers. It is key to bridging the gap between what is known to work, and the implementation of successful policies and programmes based on that knowledge.

CES has significant experience as a knowledge broker, working with government departments and agencies in Ireland and Northern Ireland to address questions and information gaps, using and building on knowledge and evidence developed by universities and other research organisations.  

We also work with several universities on the translation and implementation of evidence.  

This places us at the interface between knowledge producers and knowledge users, in the key position to help them create meaningful impact for people in our community.

New ways of working

As Dr. Eller says in her report, leadership and culture change are vital to the success of evidence-based policy solutions.

This will require new thinking and ways of working to become routine within policy development. Some work was undertaken by CES in 2016 – through the Goal Programme for Public Service Reform and Innovation Building capacity for change through the Goal Programme (, which supported systemic change in public services in Ireland and Northern Ireland with the aim of improving outcomes for people using public services.  

The programme, funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies, was delivered in partnership with seven government departments in Ireland and Northern Ireland. It comprised nine strategic sectoral reform projects which were exemplars for testing new ways of working in areas such as leadership development, innovation, knowledge management, collaborative work practices and capacity building.

With the restoration of the NI Assembly there is an opportunity to further build on this work to reform our approach to policy-making.

Implementation to achieve local outcomes

The Northern Ireland policy agenda will be underpinned by a Programme for Government that is ‘focused on achieving outcomes of societal wellbeing and delivering real and positive change in people’s lives’.

While local delivery of policy outcomes is fundamental to the success of significant new policy initiatives, there is often a gap between the high-level goals and objectives of a national or strategic policy and how communities experience the policy as it is implemented ‘on the ground’.  

At CES we recognise the complexity and challenge of successful policy implementation, and having worked closely with Government agencies and service providers for many years we have developed considerable expertise in implementation – you can read our Guide to Implementation here The CES Guide to Implementation | Implementation (

Some of the essential ingredients in realising policy outcomes at a local level are:

  • An agreed approach - data and science alone will not resolve conflicting views on complex problems, however building a shared understanding - based on realistic expectations, key stakeholder input, and focused on the end user’s needs – may facilitate implementation.
  • Communication and relationships should be at the forefront, bearing in mind that everyone involved will have their own thoughts and assumptions and different levels of capacity.  
  • Flexible and adaptable policy and governance arrangements which take account of the local context, are more likely to enhance acceptability.  
  • Rather than focusing on ‘quick wins’ and brief policy cycles, sustainability is dependent on embedding knowledge-based and informed management within successive political leadership.  
  • Strong accountability and sharing information from the outset help to ensure policy makers and the wider public alike are encouraged to trust in policy initiatives.
  • Consulting with ‘experts by experience’ or people ‘on the ground’ may supply insight and innovative perspectives on endemic problems whilst also ensuring those who will be impacted by a policy are heard.  
  • Realistic, valuable measurement and feedback increase the ability to manage risk and help policymakers to avoid short-termism. Monitoring and evaluation should be built on a clear theory of change,
  • Adequate, flexible, and corresponding funding cycles also act as enablers and incentives in achieving policy outcomes for complex problems.

In short, evidence-based policy solutions, that reflect local needs, and have a credible implementation plan, delivered by leaders that share and communicate, can bring positive change to the social landscape of Northern Ireland – and the time to act is now.  

For more information on the work of CES and to access our vast library of knowledge and resources check out our website:

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