Background to the report
Since 2014, the Department for Education (the Department) has been funding a range of innovation projects intended to help local authorities improve both outcomes for children and value for money by developing new ways of working. In total, the Department has provided or committed some £333 million in support of innovation projects, their evaluations and linked programmes. At the core of the support for innovation was a commitment to evaluating the impact of local projects to support more effective and efficient ways of delivering children’s social care services.
In 2021 the National Audit Office received correspondence from a member of Parliament, drawing our attention to a local project, funded through the Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme (the Innovation Programme), which had received a positive evaluation. We decided that there was a good case for a report setting out the strengths of the Department’s overall approach to funding and evaluating innovation projects.
Scope of the report
The Department has already subjected its innovation projects to academic evaluation, and What Works for Children’s Social Care (fully operational since 2019) is reviewing the ongoing projects. We have designed this report as a case study of a department’s approach to using evaluation within a policy development cycle, covering how it:
- designs policy interventions with evaluation in mind;
- assures the quality of its evaluations; and
- uses the results of evaluation to inform the development of further interventions.
This report does not seek to examine the value for money of the Department’s innovation projects. What it provides is a factual account of the Department’s oversight and funding of innovation projects, and how it has used evaluation in its policy development process. Our focus is on the role of the Department, given its policy responsibility for children’s services
The Department’s Innovation Programme was a positive step in its aim of funding new ways of working and evidence-based practice, with a commitment to evaluation at its heart. Evaluation can identify where local authorities can make the greatest difference for children and their families. The Department showed good practice in embedding evaluation into the projects it funded from an early stage and in publishing academic assessments, which were often critical of the quality of these evaluations. While the Department has faced practical challenges to securing robust evaluations of its interventions, working with What Works for Children’s Social Care it has been able to improve the sophistication of its evaluations over time and demonstrate its long-term commitment to evaluation. It has also been able to draw on the evidence from the Innovation Programme to select a number of more promising projects for wider roll-out within the sector.
Evaluating innovation and building that into decision-making is fundamental to good spending of public money. The Department’s approach provides an example of using evaluation within a cycle of policy development which will be of wider value for other departments to study. We encourage the Department to continue, expand and share its approach to evidence-informed decision-making. Where the Department may need to go further is in demonstrating how its funding of innovation in select local authorities will lead to:
- the building of greater local evaluative capacity;
- better use of public money;
- wider dissemination of good practice across the sector; and
- ultimately, improved outcomes for children in and around the care system.