Increasing the evidence base or reducing uncertainty?

Over the years, and in a variety of roles, I have spent a lot of time trying to ‘increase the evidence base’ to inform policy and decision-making. Evidence of what works should guide our plans for the future – this has been the mantra.

Sometimes we’ve had lots of evidence-based policy making – the Social Exclusion Unit’s Policy Action Teams is probably the zenith for evidence based policy development – and at other times we’ve had an almost anti-evidence approach. Talk of ‘conviction politics’ seems more popular these days, less evidence, more how it feels.

The politics is the politics….whatever.

But I’ve been increasingly questioning the sense of ‘increasing evidence’ if we are serious about social innovation.

They say that past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour, but is that the case if we are trying to change things?

If we are trying seriously to develop innovative approaches – whether it’s to service delivery, community participation, governance, design or enterprise – we cannot know what the outcome will be. If we know, then surely it can’t be innovation….it’s a dead cert. And that doesn’t sound to me like innovation.

So, with innovation and creativity, there is a risk. We take that risk in trying something new, whether we acknowledge it or not. It may fail. 

Try again, fail again, fail better!

[i just couldn’t resist putting this wonderful Samuel Beckett quote in!]

We can learn from the past, from the evidence base, certainly. But that is useful only as a means of reducing the uncertainty (or the level of risk) in our planned innovation.


If we get too hung up on talking about increasing the evidence base, I worry that we will become too confident about the impact we will have when we deliver a particular innovation. The evidence base may be useful – it may tell us how things worked in a different setting with different circumstances. But because life around us changes so rapidly, we cannot be certain that what happened in the past will happen again in the future.

The other thing that makes me nervous talking about increasing the evidence-base, is that it can stifle innovation and (managed) risk taking. If we emphasize having to have an evidence base to prove that we should do something, we may find that the evidence is never there and so the innovation is never tried.

If we talk about reducing uncertainty, by contrast, we are accepting an implicit level of risk (which is there) but that the use of evidence can help us to reduce that risk to a more manageable level. 

That may sound rather subtle but I think in terms of establishing a culture of innovation (thinking in particular about my experience of local government) I think this matters a great deal.

This is not about dismissing the value of evidence….but more about how we frame its use in supporting social innovation.


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