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An interview with David Halpern, What Works National Adviser

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David Halpern, What Works National Adviser
David Halpern, What Works National Adviser (Copyright: Behavioural Insights Ltd)

Reappointed as the What Works National Adviser for another three years, David Halpern gives us an insight into his journey so far and his hopes for the future.

I am driven by making the world a bit more evidence-based! The UK Government spends £2-3 billion a day – not to mention the time and skills of five million public sector workers. Even small, but continual improvements in how we spend that time and money can, over time, bring huge improvements in health, education, and safety.

I am proud of how far the ‘What Works’ movement has already come. We now have a flourishing network of 13 evidence centres. Education is a great example. The Education Endowment Foundation – the What Works Centre for Education – has collated more than 10,000 academic studies; conducted more than 180 large-scale trials (with more than a million children), and has transformed the quality and scale of educational research – not just in the UK, but the world. It’s now the ‘go-to’ source of information on What Works for teachers – and built for them.  Similar transformations are now underway in more than a dozen major areas of policy and practice. How fantastic is that?

I regret that it’s taken us so long to get here – and that we still have significant areas of policy and practice that the What Works approach has yet to really impact.

I once met Steve Aos, the founder of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (a US-based What Works Centre), early on in this journey (indeed more than once!). He was a great advocate for bringing better evidence into government and public services – a brilliant communicator, while not losing rigour. He’s now retired, but I often still find myself referring to his work, and borrowing phrases from his skilful balance between pragmatism and rigour.

My goal, along with others involved in the What Works movement, is to put the best possible evidence in the hands of people who get out of bed every day to make the world better, helping them have the biggest impact they can.

My message to practitioners, policymakers and researchers is that we are at the cusp of an extraordinary revolution. The methodological tools that transformed medicine from an art into a science, and have helped drive unprecedented rises in life expectancy, are now spreading into other disciplines (and plugging gaps in health as well!). Data sets are converging and improving. Trial-based approaches, and the humility on which they are founded, are spreading. We’re moving from a world where evaluations were tacked on as an occasional after-thought, to where they are baked into policy-making and service delivery.  We’re not there yet, but I think we’re transitioning to an age when we’ll look back with amazement on the period before we used to ask ‘What Works?’ (…as well as what works where, when, and for who?). Our kids will ask us with bewilderment – ‘What did you do before?’ 

What are YOUR hopes for the What Works movement? Leave a comment below.

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