Evidence Based Policy Making: 5 things you need to know and do

These are some opening remarks for my talk on EBPM at Open Society Foundations (New York), 24th October 2016. The OSF recorded the talk, so you can listen below, externally, or by right clicking and saving. Please note that it was a lunchtime talk, so the background noises are plates and glasses.

Evidence based policy making’ is a good political slogan, but not a good description of the policy process. If you expect to see it, you will be disappointed. If you seek more thoughtful ways to understand and act within political systems, you need to understand five key points then decide how to respond.

  1. Decide what it means.

EBPM looks like a valence issue in which most of us agree that policy and policymaking should be ‘evidence based’ (perhaps like ‘evidence based medicine’). Yet, valence issues only command broad agreement on vague proposals. By defining each term we highlight ambiguity and the need to make political choices to make sense of key terms:

  • Should you use restrictive criteria to determine what counts as ‘evidence’ and scientific evidence?
  • Which metaphor, evidence based or informed, describes how pragmatic you will be?
  • The unclear meaning of ‘policy’ prompts you to consider how far you’d go to pursue EBPM, from a one-off statement of intent by a key actor, to delivery by many actors, to the sense of continuous policymaking requiring us to be always engaged.
  • Policymaking is done by policymakers, but many are unelected and the division between policy maker/ influencer is often unclear. So, should you seek to influence policy by influencing influencers?
  1. Respond to ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ thought.

Comprehensive rationality’ describes the absence of ambiguity and uncertainty when policymakers know what problem they want to solve and how to solve it, partly because they can gather and understand all information required to measure the problem and determine the effectiveness of solutions.

Instead, we talk of ‘bounded rationality’ and how policymakers deal with it. They employ 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, deeply held beliefs, habits, and familiarity, make decisions quickly.

I say ‘irrational’ provocatively, to raise a key strategic question: do you criticise emotional policymaking (describing it as ‘policy based evidence’) and try somehow to minimise it, adapt pragmatically to it, or see ‘fast thinking’ more positively in terms of ‘fast and frugal heuristics’? Regardless, policymakers will think that their heuristics make sense to them, and it can be counterproductive to simply criticise their alleged irrationality.

  1. Think about how to engage in complex systems or policy environments.

Policy cycle’ describes the idea that there is a core group of policymakers at the ‘centre’, making policy from the ‘top down’, and pursuing their goals in a series of clearly defined and well-ordered stages, such as: agenda setting, policy formulation, legitimation, implementation, and evaluation. In this context, one might identify how to influence a singular point of central government decision.

However, a cycle model does not describe policymaking well. Instead, we tend to identify the role of less ordered and more unpredictable complex systems, or policy environments containing:

  • A wide range of actors (individuals and organisations) influencing policy at many levels of government. Scientists and practitioners are competing with many actors to present evidence in a particular way to secure a policymaker audience.
  • A proliferation of rules and norms maintained by different levels or types of government. Support for particular ‘evidence based’ solutions varies according to which organisation takes the lead and how it understands the problem.
  • Important relationships (‘networks’) between policymakers and powerful actors. 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.
  • A tendency for certain ‘core beliefs’ or ‘paradigms’ to dominate discussion. 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.
  • Policy conditions and events that can reinforce stability or prompt policymaker attention to lurch at short notice. 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.

These factors suggest that an effective engagement strategy is not straightforward: our instinct may be to influence elected policymakers at the ‘centre’ making authoritative choices, but the ‘return on investment’ is not clear. So, you need to decide how and where to engage, but it takes time to know ‘where the action is’ and with whom to form coalitions.

  1. Recognise that EBPM is only one of many legitimate ‘good governance’ principles.

There are several principles of ‘good’ policymaking and only one is EBPM. Others relate to the value of pragmatism and consensus building, combining science advice with public values, improving policy delivery by generating ‘ownership’ of policy among key stakeholders, and sharing responsibility with elected local policymakers.

Our choice of which principle and forms of evidence to privilege are inextricably linked. For example, some forms of evidence gathering seem to require uniform models and limited local or stakeholder discretion to modify policy delivery. The classic example is a programme whose value is established using randomised control trials (RCTs). Others begin with local discretion, seeking evidence from service user and local practitioner experience. This principle seems to rule out the use of RCTs. Of course, one can try to pursue both approaches and a compromise between them, but the outcome may not satisfy advocates of either approach or help produce the evidence that they favour.

  1. Decide how far you’ll go to achieve EBPM.

These insights should prompt us to see how far we are willing, and should, go to promote the use of certain forms of evidence in policymaking. For example, if policymakers and the public are emotional decision-makers, should we seek to manipulate their thought processes by using simple stories with heroes, villains, and clear but rather simplistic morals? If policymaking systems are so complex, should we devote huge amounts of resources to make sure we’re effective? Kathryn Oliver and I also explore the implications for proponents of scientific evidence, and there is a live debate on science advice to government on the extent to which scientists should be more than ‘honest brokers’.

Where we go from there is up to you

The value of policy theory to this topic is to help us reject simplistic models of EBPM and think through the implications of more sophisticated and complicated processes. It does not provide a blueprint for action (how could it?), but instead a series of questions that you should answer when you seek to use evidence to get what you want. They are political choices based on value judgements, not issues that can be resolved by producing more evidence.

ebpm pic

5 Comments

Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM)

5 responses to “Evidence Based Policy Making: 5 things you need to know and do

  1. Pingback: How can political actors take into account the limitations of evidence-based policy-making? 5 key points | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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  3. Pingback: We all want ‘evidence based policy making’ but how do we do it?

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