Rapid response reports: a quick but rigorous service for policymakers
12 December 2014
Government departments have used rapid response reports from the UCL Institute of Education to help determine the financial and practical support for disadvantaged families and children in England for more than a decade.
The reports, specifically commissioned to inform policymaking, relate to child and family welfare, and encompass issues such as adoption, foster care, family justice, child protection, childcare, children's rights, children with disabilities, mental health, and black and ethnic minority children.
What distinguishes this rapid response work from other policy-relevant research is the provision of high-quality information at relative speed (from two weeks to several months), and the relationships of collaboration and trust built up with government officials.
The rapid response programme has helped to change attitudes among policymakers, raising expectations about the value of research in policymaking and encouraging 'joined-up' education and health research agendas. Richard Bartholomew, chief research officer at the Department for Education (DfE), said the programme's speed and quality enabled his department to commission "very urgent pieces of original research to inform live policy debates", overcoming the major problem of the "very different speeds of the policy and the research cycles".
The value to government of rapid response reports is illustrated by the UCL IOE's £2 million DfE contract to establish the Childhood Wellbeing Research Centre (CWRC) in collaboration with the Universities of Loughborough and Kent. The CWRC carries out rapid response studies, and its expertise in methodology and subject matter enables it to provide evidence to underpin government-commissioned reviews and to do joint work with DfE analysts. The CWRC provided evidence for the Bailey Review on commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood, which formed the basis for recommendations on how the retailing and entertainment sectors could work with government and parents to reduce the risks to children. It also conducted an international evidence review that helped policymakers develop the role of the Children's Commissioner for England, by providing clear examples of adaptable models used in other countries.
In another example, a report on family breakdown and children's wellbeing helped support arguments for fairer taxation of single-parent families and policies aimed at promoting better relationships within families before and after breakdowns. Even before it was published, the report heavily informed the government's 2008 'Families in Britain: an evidence paper'. It was subsequently cited in a number of other government publications and had a direct impact on several important policy decisions, such as the provision of £30m over four years to provide relationship support for couples, £20m over three years to help separated and separating parents to work together in the best interests of their child and £10m on legal aid for family mediation.
A 2009 rapid response study of how height and weight measurements were being fed back to parents through the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) identified concerns about the potential to stigmatise overweight children. It led to improvements being made to the Department of Health (DoH) templates for feedback letters to parents. A further review made key recommendations that influenced national guidance for local providers of the programme, including the need for further explanation and debate about NCMP's purpose. This reflected concerns that professionals had raised with the researchers that the NCMP was changing from a monitoring to a screening programme.
The DoH commissioned a report, 'Promoting the Health of Looked-after Children', to inform statutory guidance in 2009. Recommendations arising from the study that were incorporated into the statutory guidance include, at a strategic level, the importance of Joint Strategic Needs Assessments taking into account the health requirements of looked-after children, and at an operational level the need for better communication when a child is placed with carers outside their local authority. Through its impact on the government guidance this research brought potential benefit to all looked-after children.