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Practitioners are sources of evidence too

09 August 2013

Policymakers are once again promoting the use of evidence in decision-making, including by practitioners. But practitioners shouldn’t just be seen as recipients of knowledge created elsewhere – they are critical sources of evidence themselves.

Magnifying glass

This year marks the centenary of the founding of the Medical Research Council. During 2013 the MRC has quite rightly been celebrating a hundred years of life-changing discoveries and reflecting on its many achievements in medical research. For some commentators (for example, Mark Henderson, author of The Geek Manifesto), one of the MRC’s most important achievements has been not a treatment, but an approach to testing:

“[T]he randomised controlled trial, and its comrade-in-arms the systematic review, have transformed medicine by giving us a proper evidence base. However clever the biological insights we use to develop new medicines, we need these tools to establish whether or not they really work. They could be more profitably used beyond medicine, too, to assess social policies, educational techniques and criminal justice interventions, which have just as much influence on life chances as drugs and medical devices.”

Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) aim to make an accurate comparison between treatments to see which one works best. The first published RCT was in 1948, describing a MRC study (one of the paper’s authors was Austin Bradford Hill, who is credited as having invented the modern RCT). More recently, there has been increasing interest in how greater evidence and testing could be supported in professions beyond medicine.

Evidence also played a major part in the development of planning as a profession of course, and continues to underpin the work of planners today.

Other professions are often compared (and compare themselves) unfavourably to medicine – despite the fact that randomized experiments were first used (if not published in peer reviewed journals) in psychology and education. Evidence also played a major part in the development of planning as a profession of course, and continues to underpin the work of planners today.

In the UK for example, the research undertaken by Charles Booth between 1886 and 1903 to quantify London’s social problems – considered to be the first modern surveys – helped lead to the public health and housing acts in the late nineteenth century, and in turn the planning system and a planning profession that could ensure the development of better organised, healthier towns and cities.

RCTs might not be easy to implement in planning – planners (rightly) don’t have the authority to ‘experiment’ on communities in order to test out different approaches – but planning today is still a highly evidence-based profession. It’s about assembling and weighing evidence to reach the best economic, social and environmental decisions for the longer-term, and the process of local plan-making in particular is about gathering, analysing and presenting evidence to inform the shape of future development. Indeed, in some ways plan-making represents an ongoing and dynamic process that planners constantly seek to learn from, with the results only becoming fully apparent over many years.

Like any profession, planners can always be more evidence-based; indeed, using evidence is part of what it means to be a ‘professional’. As the professional institute for planners and a learned society, the RTPI has a unique responsibility to promote a stronger, more skilled and more informed planning profession. As part of this, over the next few months we’ll be launching a new series of research briefings aimed at non-research audiences, and working with members of our International Committee we’ve developed a draft format for researchers to capture key findings from their projects for practitioners (called project logs), which we'd welcome your views on. As part of our Policy Futures work during our Centenary Year in 2014, we'll also be looking to the future of the planning profession and its role in responding to the challenges of the twenty-first century - including how these challenges need to inform the development of the profession itself.

But we also believe that evidence shouldn’t be a one-way street. Too often, the emphasis is on how we can ‘get evidence to the frontline’ to inform practitioners how to do their jobs better. But what about the evidence and intelligence that planners can provide to others, including policymakers? The RTPI has an important role to play here in taking what planners know from their practice – the practical intelligence that comes from experience – and translating this into better policy. Ultimately, this is what makes our policy work distinctive to some of the other organisations that comment on planning issues. After all, policymaking should be an evidence-based profession as well.

About Michael Harris

Dr Michael Harris is Deputy Head of Policy and Research at the Royal Town Planning Institute, where he leads on the RTPI’s research activities. Previously he was a senior associate at the new economics foundation (nef) think tank, and Director of Public and Social Innovation at Nesta (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts). He has also worked in local government and academia. Michael has an on-going interest in localism, health and wellbeing, and community engagement.