What Works? A New Network for Sharing Environmental Evidence

3rd February 2021

Eunomia is calling on the UK government to consider a What Works Centre for the environment to share evidence on what works best when it comes to environmental policymaking – adding to the nine existing centres in other policy areas. We spoke to our Consultant Alexa Cancio and Head of Evaluation Joe Hudson to find out why:

In 2013, the Cabinet Office launched the What Works Network (WWN) to ensure those making decisions on public services are consistently informed by high-quality evidence on what works. The network exists to improve the way public sector organisations create, share, and use the best available evidence to improve public services towards becoming more efficient and effective.

The network is currently composed of nine independent What Works Centres that tackle different economic and social policy areas including health and social care; educational achievement; crime reduction; early intervention; local economic growth; improved quality of life for older people; wellbeing; homelessness; and children’s social care. Although there has been widespread research on environmental issues for decades, there is no public body to bring all this evidence together.

Why now?

Environmental regulation previously centred on emissions and environmental damage from organisational activities, but the role of individual behaviour in environmental issues is a bigger consideration than ever. The Committee on Climate Change, for one, advised in its latest report that over half of emissions reductions in their climate change scenarios require some level of behaviour change. This adds to the wider evidence of how environmental policy increasingly considers how to influence individual choice in a range of sectors. In 2020, for instance, Eunomia conducted a study alongside NatCen to understand the attitudes and levels of awareness the UK public have towards a future low-carbon heating transition. Eunomia has also supported local governments in developing their climate change strategies, many of which have a strong focus on engaging the local community (e.g. Isle of Man Government, Hounslow Council). These studies highlight the growing need to account for social factors to successfully and sustainably address environmental issues. Without an avenue to make this data available to a wider audience, organisations unaware of this evidence may apply less effective and efficient initiatives that would waste resources and frustrate progress.

At the same time, we are increasingly witnessing how environmental issues can magnify or improve social issues. Issues around air quality and waste management can, for example, affect the health and quality of life in society. Environmental and social research need to work in tandem to address interconnected issues more effectively. Individuals are similarly complex and diverse as businesses, making it challenging to understand and change their behaviour. Given this, research, collaboration, and evidence-sharing through a What Works Centre for the environment is needed to identify what public engagement approaches work best. Key challenges like tackling the climate crisis will depend on changing how humans engage with their environment.

Creating an environment-focused Centre would fulfil an already-recognised need to apply the best approaches for environmental policy. In the WWN’s 2018 five-year impact report, the Network raised how other areas of government spending—including the environment—could hugely benefit from a What Works approach. Despite this, no equivalent Centre integrating any environmental policy area has been created.

An invitation to industry

The What Works National Adviser, Director David Halpern, and his team in the Cabinet Office promote and support the independent WWN. The Network’s expansion process is dependent on outside groups expressing interest to become a member. This dependency, however, means that Centres are created based on external interest and not necessarily on key policy areas that demand improvement. The Network needs to take a more active role in identifying crucial policy areas and creating relevant Centres that will support these areas – as should be the case for the environment.

During the Network’s inception, a clear message raised the business case for evidence-based policy: “…billions of pounds are spent every year on social policies and programmes with little rigorous evidence on the impacts that these have.” The same applies to environmental policy and further supports the need for a What Works Centre for the environment. Creating such a Centre will importantly inform policymakers on how to invest public resources wisely and use evidence to inform their environmental policies and initiatives on what works best.