One small step for the British Library

one giant leap for the social sector?

By Benedict Rickey 25 July 2012

21st July 1969. 600 million people sit glued to their television screens watching Neil Armstrong become the first person to set foot on the moon. Some of them may be imagining a science fiction future full of human settlements on Mars. But most probably didn’t think the moon landing would change the lives of ordinary people. As it turned out, space travel was behind the telecommunications revolution that has transformed our everyday lives. International phone calls. Mobile phones. The internet. None of this would have been possible without space exploration. It truly was a ‘giant leap’.

So what has any of this got to do with the British Library? It turns out that they too have taken a small step, that might turn out to be a giant leap for the social sector. In time, it could contribute to a revolution in the way the sector can access  and use knowledge about social needs, social policy and social interventions.

Why do we need a revolution in access to this knowledge? The short answer is: speed and simplicity. As a research consultant, I bear the scars of days spent googling for research reports. If you’re not quite sure what the right keyword is, identifying a single report can take an hour or more. So at the moment, accessing knowledge about social welfare can be slow and laborious. This is the problem the British Library set out to address when they set up the Social Welfare Portal.

The Social Welfare Portal is on the face of it rather simple: a searchable database of research reports, summaries and government reports on all aspects of social welfare in the UK and overseas, with a particular emphasis on policy development, implementation and evaluation. It has some nice features, like allowing individual users to tailor their profile so it can suggest relevant reports. But it seems far from revolutionary, and can’t really be said to be opening up the ivory towers of academia, as there are actually few full journal articles because paying for the licensing would be prohibitively expensive.

Despite this, the portal should be welcomed – it feels like a small, but significant, step towards the democratisation of knowledge about social needs, policy and interventions. So what does this mean in practice? How could a typical charity working with, say, offenders, use the portal?

  • Charities can use research into the precise needs of their beneficiaries to target their services better. Searching the adult offenders section, I found a fascinating article revealing that a fifth of women in custody have borderline personality disorder – that has potentially huge implications for charities working with women offenders.
  • Charities developing services can identify the interventions with the strongest evidence base – another skim through the adult offenders section revealed a really interesting review of evidence of mentoring and befriending interventions that a charity could use to shape an effective programme.
  • Charities lobbying government can use it to scrutinise government policy. It includes policy papers as well as evaluations and analysis of government policy. The adult offender section included a briefing about a review of the experience of people with mental health problems and learning difficulties in the criminal justice system. The briefing highlights proposals mental health campaigning charities could lobby for, and that government should follow up.

The revolutionary thing about this is that it’s just so easy and quick. As a result, the portal has the potential to encourage hundreds more charities to engage with existing evidence on a regular basis. The portal has the potential to contribute to a giant leap in the use of evidence by the charity sector.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The portal doesn’t solve the issue of using evidence once and for all. As NESTA’s paper on the idea of a NICE for social policy highlights, putting knowledge out there only addresses the ‘supply side’ of the problem. There is another – probably more significant – problem that needs to be addressed : stimulating demand for evidence in the charity sector. That’s something the Inspiring Impact programme (which NPC coordinates) will seek to start addressing. So there is still a long road ahead, but the British Library’s Social Welfare Portal feels like a small, but important, step in the right direction.