How far should you go to privilege evidence? 2. Policy theories, scenarios, and ethical dilemmas

If you have read Why don’t policymakers listen to your evidence? and What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence? then join me as we get into the thornier dilemmas in this punchline post. Maybe you already appreciate the importance of bounded rationality and policymaking complexity. Maybe you’ve read the gazillion posts which think through the relationship between ‘evidence based policymaking’ and policy theories and now hope that there’s nothing more to say. Well, you hope in vain.

This post compares some general bland advice, based on these posts, to the dilemmas that you might encounter if you really take key parts of these theories to heart.

FUSE slide 5 bland

My first aim is to compare the ‘how to’ advice that you might take from policy theories versus the grey literature.

Policy concepts describe a wider context in which to produce practical advice:

  • If there are so many potential authoritative venues, devote considerable energy to finding where the ‘action’ is.
  • Even if you find the right venue, you will not know the unwritten rules unless you study them intensely.
  • Some networks are close-knit and difficult to access because bureaucracies have operating procedures that favour some sources of evidence.
  • Research advocates can be privileged insiders in some venues and excluded completely in others.
  • If your evidence challenges an existing paradigm, you need a persuasion strategy good enough to prompt a shift of attention to a policy problem and a willingness to understand that problem in a new way.
  • You can try to find the right time to use evidence to exploit a crisis leading to major policy change, but the opportunities are few and chances of success low.
  • And so on.

In that context, theory-informed studies recommend investing your time over the long term – to built up alliances, trust in the messenger, knowledge of the system, and to seek ‘windows of opportunity’ for policy change – but offer no assurances that any of this investment will ever pay off.

The despair does not stop there. More specific theories and studies help us combine practical considerations with the ethical dilemmas that evidence advocates face when trying to be effective in a highly political policymaking environment.

First, refresh your memory of key images of the policy process. Or, if you are on a PC, you can keep the two tabs open for comparison.

Second, consider the following staircase analogy in which the ethical dilemmas – regarding how far you should go to get attention for your evidence – seems to become more problematic with each upwards step:

Step 1: Change levels of attention to issues, not minds.

The narrative policy framework (NPF) suggests that ‘narratives’ – consisting of a setting, characters, plot, and moral – can produce a measurable policy impact, but primarily to reinforce the beliefs of policy actors. The existing beliefs of the audience often seem more important than the skills of the storyteller. Therefore, to maximise the impact of evidence, (a) tell a story which appeals to the biases of your audiences, and (b) employ ‘heresthetic’ strategies in which we try to increase the salience of one belief at the expense of another rather than ask someone to change their belief entirely.

Step 2: Engage only with actors who share your beliefs.

The advocacy coalition framework (ACF) suggests that actors enter politics to turn their beliefs into policy. In highly salient issues, coalition actors romanticise their own cause and demonize their opponents. This competition extends to the use of evidence: each coalition may demand different evidence, or interpret the same evidence differently, to support their own cause. If so, the most feasible strategy may be to treat evidence as a resource to support the coalitions which support your cause, and to engage minimally with competitor coalitions who seek to ignore or discredit your evidence. Only in less salient issues will we find a ‘brokerage’ role for scientists.

Step 3: Exercise power to limit debate and dominate policymaker attention.

Punctuated equilibrium theory (PET) suggests that policy actors frame issues to limit external attention. If they can define a problem successfully as solved, bar the technical details relating to regulation and implementation, they can help reduce external attention and privilege the demand for evidence from scientific experts.

Step 4. Frame evidence to be consistent with objectionable beliefs.

Social construction and policy design theory (SCPD) suggests that, when dealing with salient issues, policymakers exploit social stereotypes strategically, or rely on their emotions, to define target populations as deserving of government benefits or punishments. Some populations can challenge (or exploit the rewards of) their image, but many are powerless to respond. Or, in lower salience issues, there is more scope for bureaucrats and experts to contain discussion to small groups (as in the discussion of PET). In both cases, many social groups become disenchanted with politics because they are punished by government policy and excluded from debate. To find an influential audience for evidence, one may be most effective by framing evidence to be sympathetic to stereotype-led or other forms of misleading political strategy.

The main role of these discussions is to expose the assumptions that we make about the primacy of research evidence and the lengths to which we are willing to go to privilege its use. Policy studies suggest that the most effective ways to privilege research evidence may be to:

  • manipulate the order in which we consider issues and make choices
  • refuse to engage in debate with our competitors
  • frame issues to minimise attention or maximise the convergence between evidence and the rhetorical devices of cynical politicians.

However, they also expose stark ethical dilemmas regarding the consequences for democracy. Put simply, the most effective evidence advocacy strategies may be inconsistent with wider democratic principles and key initiatives such as participatory policymaking.

If so, these discussions prompt us to consider the ways in which we can value research evidence up to a certain point, to produce more ‘co-productive’ strategies which balance efforts to limit participation (to privilege expertise) and encourage it (to privilege deliberative and participatory forms of democracy). This approach is more honest and realistic than the more common story that science is, by its very nature, the antidote to populist or dysfunctional politics.

[If you came here in error, or to continue your adventure, go to page 100]

See also:

EBPM key themes

Policy theories in 1000 words (or short podcasts) and 500 words


Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

11 responses to “How far should you go to privilege evidence? 2. Policy theories, scenarios, and ethical dilemmas

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