Revisiting the main ‘barriers’ between evidence and policy: focus on ambiguity, not uncertainty

The case studies of health and environmental policy, discussed in this book, largely confirm the concern that I raise in the introduction: it is too easy to bemoan the lack of evidence-based policymaking without being clear on what it means. There is great potential to conflate a series of problems that should be separated analytically:

  • The lack of reliable or uncontested evidence on the nature of a policy problem. In some cases, (a) complaints that policymakers do not respond quickly or proportionately to ‘the evidence’ go hand in hand with (b) admissions that the evidence of problems is equivocal. In turn, patchy evidence feeds into a wider political process in which actors compete to provide the dominant way to frame or understand policy problems.
  • The tendency of policymakers to pay insufficient attention to pressing, well-evidenced, problems. In other cases, the evidence of a problem is relatively clear, but policymakers are unable to understand it, unwilling to address it, or more likely to pay attention to other problems.
  • The lack of reliable or uncontested evidence on the effectiveness of policy solutions. In some cases, scientists are clear on the size and nature of the problem, but the evidence on policy solutions is patchy. Consequently, policymakers may be reluctant to act, or invest in expensive solutions, even if they recognise that there is a pressing problem to solve.
  • The tendency of policymakers to ignore or reject the most effective or best-evidenced policy solutions.
  • The tendency of policymakers to decide what they want to do, then seek enough evidence, or distort that evidence, to support their decision.

This lack of clarity combines with a lack of appreciation of the key ‘barriers’ to the use of evidence in policymaking. A large part of the literature, produced by health and environmental scientists with limited reference to policy theory, identifies a gulf in cultures between scientists and policymakers, and suggests that to solve this problem is to address a key issue in EBPM. Scientific information, provided in the right way, can address the problem of ‘bounded rationality’ in policymakers. If so, the failure of politicians to act accordingly indicates a lack of ‘political will’ to do the right thing.

Yet, the better translation of scientific evidence contributes primarily to one aspect of bounded rationality: the reduction of empirical uncertainty. It contributes less to a wider process of debate, competition, and persuasion, to reduce ambiguity and establish a dominant way to frame policy problems. Scientific evidence cannot solve the problem of ambiguity, but persuasion and framing can help determine the demand for scientific evidence. To address this second aspect of bounded rationality, we need to understand how policymakers use emotional, ideological, and habitual short cuts to understand policy problems. This is less about packaging information to make it simpler to understand, and more about responding to the ways in which policymakers think and, therefore, how they demand information.

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Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM)

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