The Politics of Evidence-based Policymaking in 2500 words

Here is a 2500 word draft of an entry to the Oxford Research Encyclopaedia (public administration and policy) on EBPM. It brings together some thoughts in previous posts and articles

Evidence-based Policymaking (EBPM) has become one of many valence terms that seem difficult to oppose: who would not want policy to be evidence based? It appears to  be the most recent incarnation of a focus on ‘rational’ policymaking, in which we could ask the same question in a more classic way: who would not want policymaking to be based on reason and collecting all of the facts necessary to make good decisions?

Yet, as we know from classic discussions, there are three main issues with such an optimistic starting point. The first is definitional: valence terms only seem so appealing because they are vague. When we define key terms, and produce one definition at the expense of others, we see differences of approach and unresolved issues. The second is descriptive: ‘rational’ policymaking does not exist in the real world. Instead, we treat ‘comprehensive’ or ‘synoptic’ rationality as an ideal-type, to help us think about the consequences of ‘bounded rationality’ (Simon, 1976). Most contemporary policy theories have bounded rationality as a key starting point for explanation (Cairney and Heikkila, 2014). The third is prescriptive. Like EBPM, comprehensive rationality seems – initially – to be unequivocally good. Yet, when we identify its necessary conditions, or what we would have to do to secure this aim, we begin to question EBPM and comprehensive rationality as an ideal scenario.

What is ‘evidence-based policymaking?’ is a lot like ‘what is policy?’ but more so!

Trying to define EBPM is like magnifying the problem of defining policy. As the entries in this encyclopaedia suggest, it is difficult to say what policy is and measure how much it has changed. I use the working definition, ‘the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes’ (Cairney, 2012: 5) not to provide something definitive, but to raise important qualifications, including: there is a difference between what people say they will do, what they actually do, and the outcome; and, policymaking is also about the power not to do something.

So, the idea of a ‘sum total’ of policy sounds intuitively appealing, but masks the difficulty of identifying the many policy instruments that make up ‘policy’ (and the absence of others), including: the level of spending; the use of economic incentives/ penalties; regulations and laws; the use of voluntary agreements and codes of conduct; the provision of public services; education campaigns; funding for scientific studies or advocacy; organisational change; and, the levels of resources/ methods dedicated to policy implementation and evaluation (2012: 26). In that context, we are trying to capture a process in which actors make and deliver ‘policy’ continuously, not identify a set-piece event providing a single opportunity to use a piece of scientific evidence to prompt a policymaker response.

Similarly, for the sake of simplicity, we refer to ‘policymakers’ but in the knowledge that it leads to further qualifications and distinctions, such as: (1) between elected and unelected participants, since people such as civil servants also make important decisions; and (2) between people and organisations, with the latter used as a shorthand to refer to a group of people making decisions collectively and subject to rules of collective engagement (see ‘institutions’). There are blurry dividing lines between the people who make and influence policy and decisions are made by a collection of people with formal responsibility and informal influence (see ‘networks’). Consequently, we need to make clear what we mean by ‘policymakers’ when we identify how they use evidence.

A reference to EBPM provides two further definitional problems (Cairney, 2016: 3-4). The first is to define evidence beyond the vague idea of an argument backed by information. Advocates of EBPM are often talking about scientific evidence which describes information produced in a particular way. Some describe ‘scientific’ broadly, to refer to information gathered systematically using recognised methods, while others refer to a specific hierarchy of methods. The latter has an important reference point – evidence based medicine (EBM) – in which the aim is to generate the best evidence of the best interventions and exhort clinicians to use it. At the top of the methodological hierarchy are randomized control trials (RCTs) to determine the evidence, and the systematic review of RCTs to demonstrate the replicated success of interventions in multiple contexts, published in the top scientific journals (Oliver et al, 2014a; 2014b).

This reference to EBM is crucial in two main ways. First, it highlights a basic difference in attitude between the scientists proposing a hierarchy and the policymakers using a wider range of sources from a far less exclusive list of publications: ‘The tools and programs of evidence-based medicine … are of little relevance to civil servants trying to incorporate evidence in policy advice’ (Lomas and Brown 2009: 906).  Instead, their focus is on finding as much information as possible in a short space of time – including from the ‘grey’ or unpublished/non-peer reviewed literature, and incorporating evidence on factors such as public opinion – to generate policy analysis and make policy quickly. Therefore, second, EBM provides an ideal that is difficult to match in politics, proposing: “that policymakers adhere to the same hierarchy of scientific evidence; that ‘the evidence’ has a direct effect on policy and practice; and that the scientific profession, which identifies problems, is in the best place to identify the most appropriate solutions, based on scientific and professionally driven criteria” (Cairney, 2016: 52; Stoker 2010: 53).

These differences are summed up in the metaphor ‘evidence-based’ which, for proponents of EBM suggests that scientific evidence comes first and acts as the primary reference point for a decision: how do we translate this evidence of a problem into a proportionate response, or how do we make sure that the evidence of an intervention’s success is reflected in policy? The more pragmatic phrase ‘evidence-informed’ sums up a more rounded view of scientific evidence, in which policymakers know that they have to take into account a wider range of factors (Nutley et al, 2007).

Overall, the phrases ‘evidence-based policy’ and ‘evidence-based policymaking’ are less clear than ‘policy’. This problem puts an onus on advocates of EBPM to state what they mean, and to clarify if they are referring to an ideal-type to aid description of the real world, or advocating a process that, to all intents and purposes, would be devoid of politics (see below). The latter tends to accompany often fruitless discussions about ‘policy based evidence’, which seems to describe a range of mistakes by policymakers – including ignoring evidence, using the wrong kinds, ‘cherry picking’ evidence to suit their agendas, and/ or producing a disproportionate response to evidence – without describing a realistic standard to which to hold them.

For example, Haskins and Margolis (2015) provide a pie chart of ‘factors that influence legislation’ in the US, to suggest that research contributes 1% to a final decision compared to, for example, ‘the public’ (16%), the ‘administration’ (11%), political parties (8%) and the budget (8%). Theirs is a ‘whimsical’ exercise to lampoon the lack of EBPM in government (compare with Prewitt et al’s 2012 account built more on social science studies), but it sums up a sense in some scientific circles about their frustrations with the inability of the policymaking world to keep up with science.

Indeed, there is an extensive literature in health science (Oliver, 2014a; 2014b), emulated largely in environmental studies (Cairney, 2016: 85; Cairney et al, 2016), which bemoans the ‘barriers’ between evidence and policy. Some identify problems with the supply of evidence, recommending the need to simplify reports and key messages. Others note the difficulties in providing timely evidence in a chaotic-looking process in which the demand for information is unpredictable and fleeting. A final main category relates to a sense of different ‘cultures’ in science and policymaking which can be addressed in academic-practitioner workshops (to learn about each other’s perspectives) and more scientific training for policymakers. The latter recommendation is often based on practitioner experiences and a superficial analysis of policy studies (Oliver et al, 2014b; Embrett and Randall’s, 2014).

EBPM as a misleading description

Consequently, such analysis tends to introduce reference points that policy scholars would describe as ideal-types. Many accounts refer to the notion of a policy cycle, in which there is a core group of policymakers at the ‘centre’, making policy from the ‘top down’, breaking down their task into clearly defined and well-ordered stages (Cairney, 2016: 16-18). The hope may be that scientists can help policymakers make good decisions by getting them as close as possible to ‘comprehensive rationality’ in which they have the best information available to inform all options and consequences. In that context, policy studies provides two key insights (2016; Cairney et al, 2016).

  1. The role of multi-level policymaking environments, not cycles

Policymaking takes place in less ordered and predictable policy environments, exhibiting:

  • a wide range of actors (individuals and organisations) influencing policy in many levels and types of government
  • a proliferation of rules and norms followed in different venues
  • close relationships (‘networks’) between policymakers and powerful actors
  • a tendency for certain beliefs or ‘paradigms’ to dominate discussion
  • policy conditions and events that can prompt policymaker attention to lurch at short notice.

A focus on this bigger picture shifts our attention from the use of scientific evidence by an elite group of elected policymakers at the ‘top’ to its use by a wide range of influential actors in a multilevel policy process. It shows scientists that they are competing with many actors to present evidence in a particular way to secure a policymaker audience. Support for particular solutions varies according to which organisation takes the lead and how it understands the problem. Some networks are close-knit and difficult to access because bureaucracies have operating procedures that favour particular sources of evidence and some participants over others, and there is a language – indicating what ways of thinking are in good ‘currency’ – that takes time to learn. Well-established beliefs provide the context for policymaking: new evidence on the effectiveness of a policy solution has to be accompanied by a shift of attention and successful persuasion. In some cases, social or economic ‘crises’ can prompt lurches of attention from one issue to another, and some forms of evidence can be used to encourage that shift – but major policy change is rare.

  1. Policymakers use two ‘shortcuts’ to deal with bounded rationality and make decisions

Policymakers deal with ‘bounded rationality’ by employing two kinds of shortcut: ‘rational’, by pursuing clear goals and prioritizing certain kinds and sources of information, and ‘irrational’, by drawing on emotions, gut feelings, beliefs, habits, and familiar reference points to make decisions quickly. Consequently, the focus of policy theories is on the links between evidence, persuasion, and framing.

Framing refers to the ways in which we understand, portray, and categorise issues. Problems are multi-faceted, but bounded rationality limits the attention of policymakers, and actors compete to highlight one image at the expense of others. The outcome of this process determines who is involved (for example, portraying an issue as technical limits involvement to experts), and responsible for policy, how much attention they pay, and what kind of solution they favour. Scientific evidence plays a part in this process, but we should not exaggerate the ability of scientists to win the day with evidence. Rather, policy theories signal the strategies that actors use to increase demand for their evidence:

  • to combine facts with emotional appeals, to prompt lurches of policymaker attention from one policy image to another (True, Jones, and Baumgartner 2007)
  • to tell simple stories which are easy to understand, help manipulate people’s biases, apportion praise and blame, and highlight the moral and political value of solutions (Jones, Shanahan, and McBeth 2014)
  • to interpret new evidence through the lens of the pre-existing beliefs of actors within coalitions, some of which dominate policy networks (Weible, Heikkila, and Sabatier 2012)
  • to produce a policy solution that is feasible and exploit a time when policymakers have the opportunity to adopt it (Kingdon 1984).

Further, the impact of a framing strategy may not be immediate, even if it appears to be successful. Scientific evidence may prompt a lurch of attention to a policy problem, prompting a shift of views in one venue or the new involvement of actors from other venues. However, it can take years to produce support for an ‘evidence-based’ policy solution, built on its technical and political feasibility (will it work as intended, and do policymakers have the motive and opportunity to select it?).

EBPM as a problematic prescription

A pragmatic solution to the policy process would involve: identifying the key venues in which the ‘action’ takes place; learning the ‘rules of the game’ within key networks and institutions; developing framing and persuasion techniques; forming coalitions with allies; and engaging for the long term (Cairney, 2016: 124; Weible et al, 2012: 9-15). The alternative is to seek reforms to make EBPM in practice more like the EBM ideal.

Yet, EBM is defendable because the actors involved agree to make primary reference to scientific evidence and be guided by what works (combined with their clinical expertise and judgement). In politics, there are other – and generally more defendable – principles of ‘good’ policymaking (Cairney, 2016: 125-6). They include the need to legitimise policy: to be accountable to the public in free and fair elections, consult far and wide to generate evidence from multiple perspectives, and negotiate policy across political parties and multiple venues with a legitimate role in policymaking. In that context, we may want scientific evidence to play a major role in policy and policymaking, but pause to reflect on how far we would go to secure a primary role for unelected experts and evidence that few can understand.

Conclusion: the inescapable and desirable politics of evidence-informed policymaking

Many contemporary discussions of policymaking begin with the naïve belief in the possibility and desirability of an evidence-based policy process free from the pathologies of politics. The buzz phrase for any complaint about politicians not living up to this ideal is ‘policy based evidence’: biased politicians decide first what they want to do, then cherry pick any evidence that backs up their case. Yet, without additional thought, they put in its place a technocratic process in which unelected experts are in charge, deciding on the best evidence of a problem and its best solution.

In other words, new discussions of EBPM raise old discussions of rationality that have occupied policy scholars for many decades. The difference since the days of Simon and Lindblom (1959) is that we now have the scientific technology and methods to gather information in ways beyond the dreams of our predecessors. Yet, such advances in technology and knowledge have only increased our ability to reduce but not eradicate uncertainty about the details of a problem. They do not remove ambiguity, which describes the ways in which people understand problems in the first place, then seek information to help them understand them further and seek to solve them. Nor do they reduce the need to meet important principles in politics, such as to sell or justify policies to the public (to respond to democratic elections) and address the fact that there are many venues of policymaking at multiple levels (partly to uphold a principled commitment, in many political system, to devolve or share power).  Policy theories do not tell us what to do about these limits to EBPM, but they help us to separate pragmatism from often-misplaced idealism.


Cairney, Paul (2012) Understanding Public Policy (Basingstoke: Palgrave)

Cairney, Paul (2016) The Politics of Evidence-based Policy Making (Basingstoke: Palgrave)

Cairney, Paul and Heikkila, Tanya (2014) ‘A Comparison of Theories of the Policy Process’ in Sabatier, P. and Weible, C. (eds.) Theories of the Policy Process 3rd edition (Chicago: Westview Press)

Paul Cairney, Kathryn Oliver, and Adam Wellstead (2016) ‘To Bridge the Divide between Evidence and Policy: Reduce Ambiguity as Much as Uncertainty’, Public Administration Review, Early view, DOI:10.1111/puar.12555

Embrett, M. and Randall, G. (2014) ‘Social determinants of health and health equity policy research: Exploring the use, misuse, and nonuse of policy analysis theory’, Social Science and Medicine, 108, 147-55

Haskins, Ron and Margolis, Greg (2015) Show Me the Evidence: Obama’s fight for rigor and results in social policy (Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press)

Kingdon, J. (1984) Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies 1st ed. (New York, NY: Harper Collins)

Lindblom, C. (1959) ‘The Science of Muddling Through’, Public Administration Review, 19: 79–88

Lomas J. and Brown A. (2009) ‘Research and advice giving: a functional view of evidence-informed policy advice in a Canadian ministry of health’, Milbank Quarterly, 87, 4, 903–926

McBeth, M., Jones, M. and Shanahan, E. (2014) ‘The Narrative Policy Framework’ in Sabatier, P. and Weible, C. (eds.) Theories of the Policy Process 3rd edition (Chicago: Westview Press)

Nutley, S., Walter, I. and Davies, H. (2007) Using evidence: how research can inform public services (Bristol: The Policy Press)

Oliver, K., Innvar, S., Lorenc, T., Woodman, J. and Thomas, J. (2014a) ‘A systematic review of barriers to and facilitators of the use of evidence by policymakers’ BMC health services research, 14 (1), 2.

Oliver, K., Lorenc, T., & Innvær, S. (2014b) ‘New directions in evidence-based policy research: a critical analysis of the literature’, Health Research Policy and Systems, 12, 34

Kenneth Prewitt, Thomas A. Schwandt, and Miron L. Straf, (Editors) (2012) Using Science as Evidence in Public Policy

Simon, H. (1976) Administrative Behavior, 3rd ed. (London: Macmillan)

Stoker, G. (2010) ‘Translating experiments into policy’, The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 628, 1, 47-58

True, J. L., Jones, B. D. and Baumgartner, F. R. (2007) Punctuated Equilibrium Theory’ in P. Sabatier (ed.) Theories of the Policy Process, 2nd ed (Cambridge, MA: Westview Press)

Weible, C., Heikkila, T., deLeon, P. and Sabatier, P. (2012) ‘Understanding and influencing the policy process’, Policy Sciences, 45, 1, 1–21



Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM)

6 responses to “The Politics of Evidence-based Policymaking in 2500 words

  1. Thanks for a very helpful analysis. One key paper missing in your biblio is Adrian Smith’s 1996 ‘Mad Cows and Ecstasy : Chance and Choice in an Evidence-Based Society’ Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Series A (Statistics in Society), 159(3), 367-383, which i think was one of the first to explicitly link EBM to an ‘EBPM’ concept. While EB or EI PM is slippery, I think its worth remembering that on the whole Ministers prefer policies that have a chance of working and so are more amenable to expert advice than might be imagined, or at least are unlikely to flout it if any risk to their careers is involved. The other issue is that of course, scientific evidence is almost never the sole deciding factor and is usually incomplete or inconsistent; the best (least inadequate) evidence-informing then derives from the dialog between an intelligent open minded policy maker and a policy literate ‘expert’.
    Would be happy to discuss further.

  2. Thank you for an interesting discussion, reminding us that policy-making is an inherently political process and shall be approached realistically. I think that all sources shall be taken into account, and although rigorous scientific methods of research and experimentation (like RCTs) offer valuable insights, for daily practice the most useful information is the one generated and processed right on the spot, by those directly delivering services and practitioners implementing projects and programs (including those in international settings). Therefore I would encourage the governments, donors and implementing agencies require proper assessments conducted and disseminated by the project teams—to share knowledge (of successful and not so efforts) and offer insights as to practitioners, so to policymakers and academics alike. One small note: even though given as quotation in contrast to with ‘rational’, the phrase ‘irrational’ with regards to decision-making is a bit outdated. It makes sense, in my view to add logic-based and intuitive in brackets, respectively.

  3. Ketiboa Blay


  4. Hey Paul, wish there was a shorter version of this article… Decision makers in academia might not have enough time to read and understand how important this is.

  5. Pingback: Evidence Based Policy Making: 5 things you need to know and do | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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