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Guide teaches councils to combat ‘fake news’ with evidenced decisions

In a world of increasingly post-truth discourse, influential local government groups have come together to launch guidance for council scrutineers aimed at helping them make evidence-based decisions and counter so-called ‘fake news’.

The Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (Solace), the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS) and the Alliance for Useful Evidence (supported by Nesta) said the practical guide will help local government staff understand and use evidence effectively in scrutiny, as well as where to find ‘good’ evidence in the first place.

“The challenge of working out what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ evidence is not always straightforward, and this now sits alongside concerns about ‘fake news’ and a ‘post-truth’ narrative in politics,” the bodies said in a statement.

“Often there can be too much information and not enough expertise or confidence to work out what is good evidence, or how to use it to inform decision-making.”

The role of scrutiny across local government to influence and oversee its decisions will be crucial, particularly as councils face the growing challenge of targeting their limited budgets and resources effectively over the coming Parliament.

As argued by Jacqui McKinlay, chief executive of CfPS, too often decisions are made based on anecdotes, poor evidence or committees being presented with “lots of data and not much insight or analysis”.

The guidance therefore challenges scrutineers to ensure their recommendations are underpinned by good evidence; hold the Executive to account for the evidence it uses to make decisions; and act as ‘change agents’ within local authorities in order to promote evidence as the uniform basis for all council decision-making.

It also aims to empower scrutiny’s confidence to provide robust challenge to decisions which are not actually rooted in sound evidence.

“Local scrutiny members and officers have a role ensuring its own recommendations are well evidenced and being brave to challenge the executive with robust evidence in the event of a misstep,” noted McKinlay.

Abdool Kara, Solace’s spokesperson for evidence-based policy, added: “Good scrutiny can be a powerful lever for the greater and better use of evidence by councils to inform their decision-making. In a time of austerity, we need to ensure that every penny is spent in the most cost-effective way.

“But we know that some councillors may not be confident in analysing and interpreting the evidence put before them. This guide is intended to provide an easy introduction to the use of evidence to help ensure better decisions are being made, and scarce resources are being applied as wisely as our collective knowledge allows.”

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