Four obstacles to evidence based policymaking (EBPM)

  1. Even if ‘the evidence’ exists, it doesn’t tell you what to do.
  • Sometimes there is clear evidence of a problem but not its solution.
  • The evidence may tell us that something is effective, but not if it is appropriate.
  • Scientists may exaggerate scientific consensus when they become advocates.
  • Scientists often disagree about what they are doing, how they should do it, and how science should contribute to policy.
  • These problems are exacerbated when: problems cross-cut traditional policy areas and disciplinary boundaries, the evidence base is patchy, and, the evidence comes from abroad, in an unfamiliar or unsystematic way.
  1. The demand for evidence does not match the supply.
  • Governments may fund research to seek a ‘magic bullet’ or killer piece of information to remove the need for political choice.
  • Research studies often focus on the narrow, measurable aspects of interventions but policymakers consider complex problems.
  • Policymakers pay attention to, or understand, the evidence in different ways than specialist scientists.
  • Their demand for information may be unpredictable.
  • They seek many sources of information – scientific, practical, opinion.
  • They often have to make decisions quickly and despite uncertainty.
  • They use research selectively: to bolster their case, legitimise their actions, and show that they are acting.
  • People providing evidence want an instant impact, but the effect may be more subtle, taking years or decades to filter through.
  1. People make choices in a complex policymaking system in which the role of evidence is often unclear.
  • The policy process contains many policymakers and it takes time to understand how the system works.
  • Scientists are competing with a wide range of actors (more knowledgeable of the policy process) to secure a policymaker audience and present evidence in a particular way.
  • Support for evidence-based solutions varies according to which department or unit takes the lead and how it understand the problem.
  • Bureaucracies and public bodies have operating procedures that favour particular sources of evidence and some participants over others.
  • Well-established beliefs provide the context for a consideration of new evidence.
  • Attention to evidence may lurch unpredictably following shifts in the policy environment.
  1. Evidence-based policymaking is not the same as good policymaking.
  • Minimising the evidence-policy gap means centralising power in the hands of a small number of policymakers and ensuring that scientific evidence is the sole source of knowledge for policymakers.
  • Governments may legitimately pursue alternative forms of ‘good’ policymaking based on consulting widely and generating a degree of societal, practitioner and user consensus.

Armed with this knowledge, as scientists we can choose how to adapt to those circumstances by, for example: identifying where the action takes place; learning about the properties of policymaking systems, the rules of the game, and how to frame evidence to fit policy agendas; forming coalitions with other influential actors; and, engaging in the policy process long enough to exploit windows of opportunity.

For a more detailed argument, see Cairney EBPM 12.5.14

For a less detailed argument, see: Evidence Based Policy Making: If You Want to Inject More Science into Policymaking You Need to Know the Science of Policymaking

and The Psychology of Evidence Based Policymaking: Who Will Speak For the Evidence if it Doesn’t Speak for Itself?

For an equally detailed argument as the more detailed argument see How Can Policy Theory Have an Impact on Policy Making?

For an application of this sort of argument to ‘prevention’ policy see A ‘decisive shift to prevention’: how do we turn an idea into evidence based policy?

For a whole bunch of posts on the policy theory discussed in the originally more detailed argument see


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

4 responses to “Four obstacles to evidence based policymaking (EBPM)

  1. Pingback: How do governments promote democracy to secure legitimacy for their actions? | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  2. Pingback: Evidence Based Policy Making: If You Want to Inject More Science into Policymaking You Need to Know the Science of Policymaking | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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

  4. Pingback: First do no harm: is it based on evidence? | First do no harm, Scotland

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