Applying M&E methods

Commissioning Rapid Evidence Assessments for Policy

By 13/02/2024

What are rapid evidence assessments (REAs), and how can they help you address urgent policy issues? A webinar delivered by the International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO) on October 31st 2023 brought together three experts to make the case for their use in policy-making.

REAs are described as: ‘a tool for getting on top of the available research evidence on a policy issue, as comprehensively as possible, within the constraints of a given timetable’. They have become popular over the last decade, and have been used more frequently in response to global emergencies such as the Fukushima disaster; the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa; or the COVID-19 pandemic.

As their name suggests, REAs provide a high-quality synthesis of evidence in a timely and cost-effective manner. Despite being quick, they remain comprehensive, transparent, and rigorous.

The three experts brought together for the webinar discussed how rapid reviews are used in different policy contexts. Andrea Tricco is a researcher at the SPOR Evidence Alliance, a pan-Canadian partnership operating in the health sector whose knowledge synthesis work is guided by evidence-informed methods to ensure high standards in research practice. REAs are the most popular forms in which they deliver their knowledge syntheses, given that they are convenient for decision-making. Their co-creation model also ensures that policy-makers’ needs are well-understood and addressed. 

Harry Achillini works for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO); the UK’s government department responsible for tackling global challenges. He explained that REAs provide valuable support for internal policy and spending. Being much faster than systematic reviews – which can take at least nine to 12 months – REAs are an asset in an environment where people move jobs constantly and interest wanes quickly. Additionally, they produce more accurate outputs for medium-term decision-making, as well as being flexible (methodologically speaking) and allowing for a broader scope of analysis. Finally, REAs are an accessible option for those who do not have experience in systematic reviews. 

Sandy Oliver, Deputy Director of the EPPI Centre, pointed out that rapid reviews are invaluable when a new challenge emerges, and the policy team needs to make sense of it. In this setting, including diagrams can be a helpful tool to bring focus to the ‘bigger picture’. 

However, before commissioning an REA yourself, you need to think about the following to make sure it is both useful and actually is used. First, you need to be sure that the research is focused and unique: if it has been answered already, then it may be more effective to build on existing research.  Second, you need to think about what the pathways to uptake are. You want to make sure there are as many different routes for the research to be seen and used by different audiences as possible.  Third, you need to commit fully to the REA process; this includes being prepared to be a co-author if needed.

It’s worth remembering that while remaining a faster option than systematic reviews, the timeline of an REA can vary. For instance, Andrea’s team can generate them in just three weeks, whereas in Harry’s environment it takes three to six months. 

So if the goal is to be fast, why not just use Google?

Because, as Sandy puts it, you are simply more likely to find information from the people who shout the loudest, than from the people who think the hardest. And, in an era of ‘fake news’ and misinformation, the risk of being wrong is higher than ever. 

REAs are not perfect – and we should not expect them to be. Speed and timeliness can come with trade-offs; for instance, in rigour. The review team should disclose and communicate these clearly and as early as possible.

What are the key take-aways for REA commissioners? 

  1. Communication is key; make sure everyone is updated at every phase of the rapid review.
  2. REAs respond to time-bound pockets of opportunity which can allow you to expand its scope; but this can come at the expense of rigour.
  3. Co-production is important: especially in the policy environment, where people tend to move roles frequently. 


This panel discussion event marked the release of IPPO’s latest report, Rapid Evidence Assessments: A Guide for Commissioners, Funders, and Policymakers, written in partnership with POST, RREAL and CAPE. This webinar was part of a series of IPPO events on Innovations in Evidence. IPPO’s mission is to find, distill and share the best global evidence available for policy practice across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. 

To find out more, visit