Published: 02 November 2021

Research by CECAN generates significant and impactful change in the way the UK Government approaches policy evaluation

Professor Nigel Gilbert’s research: ‘Computational modelling approaches: Changing practice in UK public policy evaluation’ addresses the problem of complex policy evaluation within government and transforms practice to make it fit for a complex world.

The Centre for Research in Social Simulation (CRESS) has a long tradition of research on social simulation, computational sociology and complexity science. Professor Gilbert’s established expertise in the use of computer modelling for understanding the social world meant that he was uniquely positioned to build on existing relationships with government departments and convene the multidisciplinary, multi-organisation research Centre for the Evaluation of Complexity Across the Nexus (CECAN) to improve the way in which policy evaluation is carried out.

Using participatory system mapping methods developed in the CECAN team, including Dr Alex Penn and Dr Pete Barbrook-Johnson, it has provided expert guidance to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) policy and evaluation leads on how they can embed complexity-appropriate approaches into the evaluation of Defra’s £3.5bn investment in the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE), and the future scoping of the rural development landscape post-Brexit.

Defra confirmed that the work generated a deeper understanding of the interaction of the many policies in this area, how their aims and mechanisms overlap, the potential for unintended consequences, and evaluation priorities and opportunities.

Since its founding in 2016, CECAN’s work has grown and spread to reach across multiple areas of government, contributing to a culture shift that is increasingly ready to embrace complexity and acquire or refine skills in complexity-appropriate evaluation.

A network of over 900 government representatives benefits from CECAN’s comprehensive programme of capacity building seminars and professional development events. The increasing popularity of CECAN’s capacity building provision, spreading organically through both its research-based and commercial arms to new areas of government, is testament to its success and effectiveness. CECAN has been able to ensure the correct use of the complexity-appropriate policy evaluation methods that it has been pioneering since its start. CECAN has now laid the groundwork for wide-scale operational change, ready to be adopted by a more open-minded and capable audience of policy professionals and evaluation practitioners.

Professor Gilbert and his CECAN colleagues, led by Martha Bicket, were invited by government evaluators to contribute supplementary guidance for the 2020 revision of the Magenta Book, the central guidance for all UK government departments on evaluation. By contributing directly to official government guidance, CECAN has improved the Government’s approach to complex policy evaluation and paved the way for its impact to continue to develop and grow well into the future.

For more information on the research, please contact:

Find out more about the Centre for Research in Social Simulation (CRESS) and the Centre for the Evaluation of Complexity Across the Nexus (CECAN).

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