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The term evidence-based practice has become increasingly popular in social policy across Europe with the expectation that it could improve the management of social service programmes; however, it is also confronted with practical and financial implementation barriers.

Evidence-based practice as part of social work education and training

An example of both a challenge and an opportunity in including evidence-based practice in social services is its potential integration into social workers’ education and training. On the one hand, this was seen as an opportunity to increase the skills and mechanisms to collect, analyse, and exchange data; on the other hand, it is challenging to shift social work training towards a more academic approach at a time when social workers face high caseloads and pressure to obtain short-term results.

More and better data for public managers

For public managers, evidence-based practice is linked with expectations around the possibility to better plan, implement, and evaluate policies and services. More and better data would allow better service planning taking into account both present and future social developments. Likewise, evaluation of the costs, benefits, outcomes, and effectiveness of services would enable decision-makers a more efficient allocation of resources.

A service planning and evaluation toolkit

Throughout 2015, ESN has been working with Ann Buchanan, a researcher from the University of Oxford, to conduct a review of international databases that gather evidence-based practice in the field of social work and to make an assessment of how useful the information they contain may be for senior social services practitioners. This has helped us to formulate a proposal around what type of information should be collected to plan and evaluate social services programmes, which was presented at the forum.

In the course of the discussions, participants cited their confusion about the various definitions of effectiveness and what the definition of quality really meant. We discussed and assessed the range of “evidence” needed to develop evidence-based social work, including identifying risk and protective factors, knowing the extent of the problem and the importance of evaluating the effects of the service on the population. For financial and ethical reasons, bringing together the various definitions and types of evidence is key so that those responsible for designing and commissioning services can decide what is best for their setting.

For further information, please see the 2015 report: Evidence-based practice in social services: an overview from practice and applied research.