Budgets cuts on both sides of the Atlantic have bought the need to understand what works into sharper focus. The What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth published its third evidence review in July, this time focusing on sports and cultural events. It has reviewed over 3,000 studies to date and continues to support policymakers to take evidence-based decisions.
Interest in evaluation and evidence has been growing for some time in the US. The former Mayor Bloomberg launched New York City’s Centre for Economic Opportunity (CEO) in 2006 in response to the recommendations put forward by a commission analysing the causes and consequences of poverty. The CEO’s remit is to identify, fund and evaluate solutions to lift families and individuals out of poverty. Around half of the Centre’s time and resources are focused on improving young people’s employment prospects through education, skills development and access to job opportunities.
Throughout all of the CEO’s work there is a focus on innovation, implementation and evaluation.
- Innovation – the CEO provides a platform for ideas to be shared and generated. It plays a convening role, working with organisations such as the Youth Development Institute and the Workforce Professionals Training Institute in the city, to share lessons and inform the design of new programmes. The Centre attracts new innovators and it imports ideas; half the ideas in the CEO’s pipeline are from elsewhere. And it places heavy emphasis on existing evidence.
- Implementation – the Centre has piloted close to 70 anti-poverty initiatives since its inception. These include asset development, education, workforce development, health and justice programmes.
- Monitoring and evaluation – the Centre looks at what’s working and what’s not, working with 14 different evaluation and technical assistance partners to monitor and evaluate every single one of its programmes. Programmes are closely monitored from the outset, reporting monthly and quarterly, and tweaked if necessary. Monitoring plays an important role in informing the timing and method of evaluation too. While randomised control trials (RCTs) are the gold standard in evaluation, conducting them is not always appropriate. With over 50 evaluations conducted in the last seven years, nine were RCTs.
Between 2006 and 2012/13, 17 programmes have been discontinued. Others have been continued and expanded. Five of the CEO’s initiatives are being replicated in other cities across the US in recognition of their high impact. The CEO has also won an award for Innovation in American Government from Harvard University.
Alongside the identification and expansion of a number of successful initiatives, the capacity building nature of the CEO’s work means that other organisations are adopting new approaches in their work and ultimately serving their clients better. It has also helped encourage a culture of innovation among city agencies and service providers more widely.
There are a number of reasons the CEO has been successful in achieving its ambitions.
- Budget – NYC’s contribution to the CEO’s budget, while only 0.15 per cent of the city’s total budget, is significant. With the city’s budget totalling $50.8 billion per year, it equates $76.5 million. Combining city, state and federal funding with the private dollars the CEO has managed to leverage, the CEO’s budget between 2006 and 2013 has totalled approximately $657 million dollars. Private foundations are attracted by the strong evaluation component.
- Flexibility in funding – funding the CEO through a city tax levy and the donations of private dollars from foundations, businesses and individuals gives the CEO funding flexibility, allowing programmes that are untested or potentially controversial to be funded entirely through private contributions, rather than public money.
- Mayoral influence – being structured as part of the Mayor’s Office signals that the CEO is a priority for the Mayor and gives it influence in other departments. This does also present the risk that its remit or funding could change under new administrations though – Mayor de Blasio may not necessarily back the CEO in the same way Mayor Bloomberg did, for example.
- Partnership – the CEO is a partner rather than a provider. It brings government, business, community-based organisations and philanthropists together, and it works with over 200 non-profits in the city. Collaboration is integral to everything the Centre does and it puts emphasis on building equal partnerships, where partners are viewed as bringing complementary skills and experience to the table.
- Transparency – the CEO make data accessible and transparent. It’s also transparent in the way it procures for new programmes.
- ‘There is room for failure’ – the CEO rewards innovation and risk-taking and has established itself as a ‘safe place’ for risk taking. The aim is to learn from failure and it does not publicly blame individual organisations.
There’s still work to do though.
- Continuing to breakdown silos – while the CEO was set up to break down the silos in government, many still exist. Parts of the Department of Education with responsibility for similar programmes to the CEO, for example, aren’t aware of the CEO’s work. Data sharing has a large part to play in this and the moment there is no common platform to share data across the City’s agencies.
- Institutionalising the CEOs approach – the key to mitigating the risks that a change of administration brings to the continuation of the CEO’s work is to embed the approach amongst the wider city government.
- Raising public profile – not enough people know about the work the CEO is doing.
- Expanding provision – the need to expand programmes has come up countless times in the conversations I’ve had.
Relative to the scale of the challenge, many programmes are just too small. These are just some of the challenges facing New York. But arguably UK cities face an even greater challenge when it comes to understanding what works. To establish an organisation on the scale of the CEO in the UK will take a sizeable budget for starters. But cities provide ideal test beds for new and better ways of working. In a climate where understanding what works is critical, why not at least consider a London CEO, a Birmingham CEO or a Northern CEO? Aside from potentially making the work of policymakers easier, it could have a real impact on the lives of millions of people across the country.