What Works Network

Using evidence to make better decisions to improve public services.


The What Works Network is a new initiative to improve the use of high quality evidence when government makes decisions about public services.

The What Works Network is made up of 6 evidence centres covering health and social care, education attainment, ageing better, local growth, crime reduction and effective early intervention. They are hosted in the institutions listed below:

What Works thematic coverage Institutional host
Health and social care National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE)
Improving education outcomes for school-aged children Sutton Trust/Educational Endowment Foundation
Crime reduction College of Policing
Effective early intervention Early Intervention Foundation
Fostering local economic growth Centre for local economic growth (hosted by LSE, Arup, Centre for Cities
Promoting active and independent ageing Big Lottery Fund (due to be created 2014)

What Works centres will summarise and share research with local decision-makers including commissioners, head teachers, police and crime commissioners. The centres will help decision-makers to invest in services that deliver the best outcomes for citizens and value for money for taxpayers. The centres will also engage with central government to inform national decision-making.

The What Works initiative builds upon existing infrastructure to support evidence-based policy making, and recognises that government can improve the application and generation of high quality evidence to support decisions about policy.

The What Works initiative is a world first – it’s the first time any government anywhere has prioritised evidence to inform policy through a national approach. Centres are independent of government and are supported by a national adviser who leads the cross-government effort to improve the integration and generation of evidence in policy and practice.

The centres are being funded from a combination of government and non-government sources including the Economic and Social Research Council and the Big Lottery Fund.

Background to the network

As highlighted in the 2011 Open Public Services White Paper (pdf), NICE routinely uses evidence to inform decisions in health spending, however in other areas of public services evidence is used less effectively.

The What Works Network, a core element of the Civil Service Reform Plan, will improve the use of high quality evidence on ‘what works’ (and, equally importantly, ‘what doesn’t work’) by decision-makers working in schools, hospitals and other public services.

There is a demand for clear summaries of evidence that are well presented and widely shared to inform public services and should support:

  • local commissioners’ decisions on how best to spend public money
  • public services providers’ decisions on how to best deliver and improve public services
  • policy makers to develop an informed view of what is and is not cost-effective in public services

Together, the What Works centres cover areas with public spending of more than £200 billion, helping to ensure that rigorous, high quality, independently assessed research shapes decision-making at every level.

Core functions of the What Works evidence centres

The centres are each responsible for distilling and sharing the evidence in each thematic area to enable local decision-makers to make decisions informed by the evidence. All centres need to uphold all 4 core functions stated below to be a designated What Works Centre:

  1. Generate a summary of evidence synthesis
    • undertake systematic assessment of relevant evidence and produce a sound, accurate, clear and actionable synthesis of the global evidence base which:
      • assesses and ranks interventions on the basis of effectiveness and cost-effectivenes;
      • hows where the interventions are applicable
      • shows the relative cost of interventions
      • shows the strength of evidence on an agreed scale
  2. Translate the evidence
    • produce and apply a ‘common currency’ - a common set of standards in each area for comparing the effectiveness of interventions
    • put the needs and interests of users at the heart of its work
  3. Share the evidence
    • publish and share findings in a format that can be understood, interpreted and acted upon
  4. Promote good evidence
    • identify research and capability gaps and work with partners to fill them
    • advise those commissioning and undertaking innovative interventions and research projects to ensure that their work can be evaluated effectively

About the centres

What Works Centre for Health and Social Care

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) was established in 1999 and provides guidance to support decision-making regarding health. From 1 April 2013 it will do the same for social care. Its guidance is based on strong, rigorous evidence to inform health spending and clinical decisions. NICE recognises that having guidance based on strong evidence is beneficial to:

  • patients and carers receiving care in line with the best available evidence of clinical and cost-effectiveness
  • healthcare professionals, who can ensure that the care provided is based on the best evidence available

What Works Centre for Improving Education Outcomes for School-Aged Children

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is a charity set up in 2011 by the Sutton Trust as lead charity in partnership with Impetus Trust, with a Department for Education endowment of £125 million. It is dedicated to breaking the link between family income and educational achievement.

The Sutton Trust-EEF Toolkit is an accessible summary of educational research which provides guidance for teachers and schools on how to use their resources to improve the attainment of disadvantaged pupils. It currently covers 30 topics and is based on work by Durham University.

What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth

The centre, which is funded by the ESRC, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Communities and Local Government, aims to significantly improve the use of evidence in the design and delivery of policies for local economic growth and employment. The centre will be led by Professor Henry Overman at the London School of Economics (LSE). Centre for Cities will lead on working closely with policymakers and practitioners to ensure the work is accessible and useful, while Arup will lead on evidence gathering and evaluation.

By working to better understand which approaches have successfully delivered local economic growth, the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth will provide policymakers with the evidence and insights they need to drive growth in the future.

What Works Centre for Crime Reduction

The College of Policing hosts the What Works Centre for Crime Reduction. The centre’s role will be to identify the best available evidence on approaches to reducing crime and potential savings.

The work will be undertaken as a partnership between the College of Policing and a consortium of eight universities including expertise from University College London (UCL), the Institute of Education (IoE), the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Birkbeck College, and Cardiff, Dundee, Surrey and Southampton universities.

Work under this commission started in September 2013 and will run for 3 years. Its focus will be on mapping and assessing the quality of the evidence base, ranking interventions in terms of a “common currency” and crucially getting the results into the hands of decision makers, including Police and Crime Commissioners.

What Works Centre for Early Intervention

The EIF was created as a result of one of the key recommendations of Graham Allen’s Early Intervention report. The EIF is the designated What Works centre for Early Intervention where they collate, synthesise, rank and disseminate the evidence on what works in early intervention.

What Works Centre for Ageing Better

The Big Lottery Fund (BIG) is in the process of establishing a Centre for Ageing Better. BIG has been developing plans for this centre in conjunction with groups of older people themselves, and other stakeholders including the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), Department of Health (DH) and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

More information on What Works

To ask a specific question, or to sign up for the What Works mailing list, please contact

What Works: evidence centres for social policy

Open Public Services White Paper 2011

Civil Service Reform Plan

Nesta: Why We Need To Create a NICE for Social Policy (pdf)

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