Is Evidence-Based Policymaking the same as good policymaking?

Evidence based policymaking (EBPM) is a great idea, isn’t it? Who could object to it, apart from the enemies of science? Well, I’m sort-of going to object in two ways, by arguing: that we partly like it so much because it’s a vague idea and we don’t know what it means; and that when we are clearer on its meaning, one type of EBPM seems very problematic indeed.

Carol Weiss gives us a menu of sensible EBPM options from which to choose. Evidence can be used:

  • to inform solutions to a problem identified by policymakers
  • as one of many sources of information used by policymakers, alongside ‘stakeholder’ advice and professional and service user experience
  • as a resource used selectively by politicians, with entrenched positions, to bolster their case
  • as a tool of government, to show it is acting (by setting up a scientific study), or to measure how well policy is working
  • as a source of ‘enlightenment’, shaping how people think over the long term.

In other words, these options provide a description of the use of evidence within an often messy political system: scientists may have a role, but they struggle for attention alongside many other people. This is where a separate definition of EBPM comes in, often as a prescription for the policy process: there should be a much closer link between the process in which scientists identify major policy problems with evidence, and the process in which politicians make policy decisions. We should seek to close the ‘evidence-policy gap’. The evidence should come first and we should bemoan the inability of policymakers to act accordingly.

Most policy science-based studies of EBPM would reject this idea on descriptive grounds – as a rather naïve view about the policy process. In that sense, the call for EBPM is a revival of the idea of ‘comprehensive rationality’ in policymaking – which describes an ‘ideal-type’ and, in one sense, an optimal policy process. We assume that the values of society are reflected in the values of policymakers, and that a small number of policymakers control the policy process from its centre. Then, we highlight the conditions that would have to be met to allow those policymakers to use the government machine to turn those aims into policies – we can separate facts from values, organisations can rank a government’s preferences, the policy process is ‘linear’ and separated into clear stages, and analysis of the world is comprehensive. The point of this ideal-type is that it doesn’t exist. Instead, policy theory is about providing more realistic descriptions of the world.

On that basis, we might argue that scientists should quit moaning about the real world and start adapting to it. Stop bemoaning the pathologies of public policy – and some vague notion of the ‘lack of political will’ – and hoping for something better. If the policy process is messy and unpredictable, be pragmatic about how to engage. Balance the desire to produce a direct evidence-policy effect with a realisation that we need to frame the evidence to make it attractive to actors with very different ideas and incentives to act. Accept that policymakers seek many other legitimate sources of information and knowledge, and do not recognise, in the same way, your evidential hierarchies favouring RCTs and systematic reviews.

Even so, should we still secretly fantasise about the idealistic prescriptive side? Is EBPM an ‘ideal’, or something to aspire to even though it is unrealistic?  Not if it means something akin to comprehensive rationality. Look again at the assumptions – one of which is that a small number of policymakers control the policy process from its centre. In this scenario, EBPM is about closing the evidence policy gap by providing a clear link between scientists and politicians who centralise policymaking and make policy from the top-down with little role for debate, consultation and other forms of knowledge (one might call this ‘leadership’, often in the face of public opinion). This raises a potentially fundamental tension between EBPM and other sources of ‘good’ policymaking. What if the acceptance of one form of EBPM undermines the other roles of government?

A government may legitimately adopt a ‘bottom up’ approach to policymaking and delivery – consulting widely with a range of interest groups and public bodies to inform its aims, and working in partnership with those groups to deliver policy (perhaps by using long term, ‘co-produced’ outcomes rather than top-down and short term targets to measure success). This approach has important benefits – it generates wide ‘ownership’ of a policy solution and allows governments to generate useful feedback on the effects of policy instruments (which is important since, in practice, it may be impossible to separate the effect of an instrument from the effect of the way in which it was implemented).

If so, it would be difficult to maintain a separate EBPM process in which the central government commissions and receives the evidence which directly informs its aims to be carried out elsewhere. If a government is committed to a bottom-up policy style, it seems inevitable that it would adopt the same approach to evidence – sharing it with a wide range of bodies and ‘co-producing’ a response. If so, the use of evidence becomes much less like a linear and simple process, and much more like a complicated and interactive process in which many actors negotiate the practical implications of scientific evidence – considering it alongside other sources of policy relevant information. This has the potential to take us away from the idea of evidence-driven policy, based on external scientific standards and ‘objective’ evidence based on a hierarchy of methods, towards treating evidence as a resource to be used by actors within political systems who draw on different ideas about the hierarchy of evidential sources. As such, ‘the evidence’ is not a resource that is controlled by the scientists producing the information.

From there, we might ask: is this still EBPM? Well, this takes us back to what it means. If it means that a ‘scientific consensus’ should have super-direct policy effects, then no. If it means that scientists provide information to inform the deliberations of policymakers, who claim a legitimate policymaking role, and engage in other forms of ‘good’ policymaking – by consulting widely and generating a degree of societal, governmental and/or practitioner consensus – then yes.

Full paper: Cairney PSA 2014 EBPM 28.2.14

See also: Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: ‘Evidence Based Policymaking’

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Bounded Rationality and Incrementalism


Filed under agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

9 responses to “Is Evidence-Based Policymaking the same as good policymaking?

  1. The menu above of EBPM is indeed very sensible, but in practice a great deal of policymaking is still done under time- and resource-pressure. In my experience this often results, especially with ‘specialised-generalists’ in the Loch Ness Monster approach. This is essentially the belief that if you gather together more and more ‘evidence’ (in the sense of figures, ever more detailed breakdowns, more precision) then eventually the solution to your problem will emerge from the pool of paper on your desk like the Loch Ness Monster rearing up. If it doesn’t, so many policymakers seem to think, it’s because there wasn’t enough ‘evidence’. This is not everywhere, but it is more common than sensible hypothesis-evidence, or theory-evaluation shaped use of evidence. On the positive side I (personally) have never seen any examples of politicians manipulating or being selective and then presenting as EBPM, they only seem to do this as reactive defence mechanism, not when making policy.

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  6. You are my hero. I wish I found your site earlier than the day before my masters thesis is due.

  7. Pingback: Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: ‘Evidence Based Policymaking’ | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  8. Pingback: Evidence and Policymaking by Oliver Summers | SPRU Students Blog

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