This post describes a new article published in British Politics (Open Access). Please find:
(1) A super-exciting video/audio powerpoint I use for a talk based on the article
(2) The audio alone (link)
(3) The powerpoint to download, so that the weblinks work (link) or the ppsx/ presentation file in case you are having a party (link)
(4) A written/ tweeted discussion of the main points
In retrospect, I think the title was too subtle and clever-clever. I wanted to convey two meanings: imaginative as a euphemism for ridiculous/ often cynical and to argue that a government has to be imaginative with evidence. The latter has two meanings: imaginative (1) in the presentation and framing of evidence-informed agenda, and (2) when facing pressure to go beyond the evidence and envisage policy outcomes.
So I describe two cases in which its evidence-use seems cynical, when:
- Declaring complete success in turning around the lives of ‘troubled families’
- Exploiting vivid neuroscientific images to support ‘early intervention’
Then I describe more difficult cases in which supportive evidence is not clear:
- Family intervention project evaluations are of limited value and only tentatively positive
- Successful projects like FNP and Incredible Years have limited applicability or ‘scalability’
As scientists, we can shrug our shoulders about the uncertainty, but elected policymakers in government have to do something. So what do they do?
At this point of the article it will look like I have become an apologist for David Cameron’s government. Instead, I’m trying to demonstrate the value of comparing sympathetic/ unsympathetic interpretations and highlight the policy problem from a policymaker’s perspective:
I suggest that they use evidence in a mix of ways to: describe an urgent problem, present an image of success and governing competence, and provide cover for more evidence-informed long term action.
The result is the appearance of top-down ‘muscular’ government and ‘a tendency for policy to change as is implemented, such as when mediated by local authority choices and social workers maintaining a commitment to their professional values when delivering policy’
I conclude by arguing that ‘evidence-based policy’ and ‘policy-based evidence’ are political slogans with minimal academic value. The binary divide between EBP/ PBE distracts us from more useful categories which show us the trade-offs policymakers have to make when faced with the need to act despite uncertainty.
As such, it forms part of a far wider body of work …
In both cases, the common theme is that, although (1) the world of top-down central government gets most attention, (2) central governments don’t even know what problem they are trying to solve, far less (3) how to control policymaking and outcomes.
In that wider context, it is worth comparing this talk with the one I gave at the IDS (which, I reckon is a good primer for – or prequel to – the UK talk):
Early intervention policy, from ‘troubled families’ to ‘named persons’: problems with evidence and framing ‘valence’ issues
Why doesn’t evidence win the day in policy and policymaking?
(found by searching for early intervention)
Here’s why there is always an expectations gap in prevention policy
Social investment, prevention and early intervention: a ‘window of opportunity’ for new ideas?
(found by searching for prevention)
Powerpoint for guest lecture: Paul Cairney UK Government Evidence Policy
5 responses to “The UK government’s imaginative use of evidence to make policy”
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