Since 2016, my most common academic presentation to interdisciplinary scientist/ researcher audiences is a variant of the question, ‘why don’t policymakers listen to your evidence?’
I tend to provide three main answers.
1. Many policymakers have many different ideas about what counts as good evidence
Few policymakers know or care about the criteria developed by some scientists to describe a hierarchy of scientific evidence. For some scientists, at the top of this hierarchy is the randomised control trial (RCT) and the systematic review of RCTs, with expertise much further down the list, followed by practitioner experience and service user feedback near the bottom.
Yet, most policymakers – and many academics – prefer a wider range of sources of information, combining their own experience with information ranging from peer reviewed scientific evidence and the ‘grey’ literature, to public opinion and feedback from consultation.
While it may be possible to persuade some central government departments or agencies to privilege scientific evidence, they also pursue other key principles, such as to foster consensus driven policymaking or a shift from centralist to localist practices.
Consequently, they often only recommend interventions rather than impose one uniform evidence-based position. If local actors favour a different policy solution, we may find that the same type of evidence may have more or less effect in different parts of government.
2. Policymakers have to ignore almost all evidence and almost every decision taken in their name
Many scientists articulate the idea that policymakers and scientists should cooperate to use the best evidence to determine ‘what works’ in policy (in forums such as INGSA, European Commission, OECD). Their language is often reminiscent of 1950s discussions of the pursuit of ‘comprehensive rationality’ in policymaking.
The key difference is that EBPM is often described as an ideal by scientists, to be compared with the more disappointing processes they find when they engage in politics. In contrast, ‘comprehensive rationality’ is an ideal-type, used to describe what cannot happen, and the practical implications of that impossibility.
The ideal-type involves a core group of elected policymakers at the ‘top’, identifying their values or the problems they seek to solve, and translating their policies into action to maximise benefits to society, aided by neutral organisations gathering all the facts necessary to produce policy solutions. Yet, in practice, they are unable to: separate values from facts in any meaningful way; rank policy aims in a logical and consistent manner; gather information comprehensively, or possess the cognitive ability to process it.
Instead, Simon famously described policymakers addressing ‘bounded rationality’ by using ‘rules of thumb’ to limit their analysis and produce ‘good enough’ decisions. More recently, punctuated equilibrium theory uses bounded rationality to show that policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of their responsibilities, which limits their control of the many decisions made in their name.
More recent discussions focus on the ‘rational’ short cuts that policymakers use to identify good enough sources of information, combined with the ‘irrational’ ways in which they use their beliefs, emotions, habits, and familiarity with issues to identify policy problems and solutions (see this post on the meaning of ‘irrational’). Or, they explore how individuals communicate their narrow expertise within a system of which they have almost no knowledge. In each case, ‘most members of the system are not paying attention to most issues most of the time’.
This scarcity of attention helps explain, for example, why policymakers ignore most issues in the absence of a focusing event, policymaking organisations make searches for information which miss key elements routinely, and organisations fail to respond to events or changing circumstances proportionately.
In that context, attempts to describe a policy agenda focusing merely on ‘what works’ are based on misleading expectations. Rather, we can describe key parts of the policymaking environment – such as institutions, policy communities/ networks, or paradigms – as a reflection of the ways in which policymakers deal with their bounded rationality and lack of control of the policy process.
3. Policymakers do not control the policy process (in the way that a policy cycle suggests)
Scientists often appear to be drawn to the idea of a linear and orderly policy cycle with discrete stages – such as agenda setting, policy formulation, legitimation, implementation, evaluation, policy maintenance/ succession/ termination – because it offers a simple and appealing model which gives clear advice on how to engage.
Indeed, the stages approach began partly as a proposal to make the policy process more scientific and based on systematic policy analysis. It offers an idea of how policy should be made: elected policymakers in central government, aided by expert policy analysts, make and legitimise choices; skilful public servants carry them out; and, policy analysts assess the results with the aid of scientific evidence.
Yet, few policy theories describe this cycle as useful, while most – including the advocacy coalition framework , and the multiple streams approach – are based on a rejection of the explanatory value of orderly stages.
Policy theories also suggest that the cycle provides misleading practical advice: you will generally not find an orderly process with a clearly defined debate on problem definition, a single moment of authoritative choice, and a clear chance to use scientific evidence to evaluate policy before deciding whether or not to continue. Instead, the cycle exists as a story for policymakers to tell about their work, partly because it is consistent with the idea of elected policymakers being in charge and accountable.
Some scholars also question the appropriateness of a stages ideal, since it suggests that there should be a core group of policymakers making policy from the ‘top down’ and obliging others to carry out their aims, which does not leave room for, for example, the diffusion of power in multi-level systems, or the use of ‘localism’ to tailor policy to local needs and desires.
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