In England, policy piloting has become firmly established in almost all areas of public policy and is seen as good practice in establishing ‘what works’. However, equating piloting with evaluation can risk oversimplifying the relationship between piloting and policy-making.
Using three case studies from health and social care – the Partnerships for Older People Projects (POPP) pilots, the Individual Budgets pilots and the Whole System Demonstrators (WSD) – the paper identifies multiple purposes of piloting, of which piloting for generating evidence of effectiveness was only one. Importantly, piloting was also aimed at promoting policy change and driving implementation, both in pilot sites and nationally. Indeed, policy makers appeared to be using pilots mainly to promote government policy, using evaluation as a strategy to strengthen the legitimacy of their decisions and to convince critical audiences. These findings highlight the ambiguous nature of piloting and thus question the extent to which piloting contributes to the agenda of evidence-based policy-making.