Managing expectations about the use of evidence in policy

Notes for the #transformURE event hosted by Nuffield, 25th September 2018

I like to think that I can talk with authority on two topics that, much like a bottle of Pepsi and a pack of Mentos, you should generally keep separate:

  1. When talking at events on the use of evidence in policy, I say that you need to understand the nature of policy and policymaking to understand the role of evidence in it.
  2. When talking with students, we begin with the classic questions ‘what is policy?’ and ‘what is the policy process’, and I declare that we don’t know the answer. We define policy to show the problems with all definitions of policy, and we discuss many models and theories that only capture one part of the process. There is no ‘general theory’ of policymaking.

The problem, when you put together those statements, is that you need to understand the role of evidence within a policy process that we don’t really understand.

It’s an OK conclusion if you just want to declare that the world is complicated, but not if you seek ways to change it or operate more effectively within it.

Put less gloomily:

  • We have ways to understand key parts of the policy process. They are not ready-made to help us understand evidence use, but we can use them intelligently.
  • Most policy theories exist to explain policy dynamics, not to help us adapt effectively to them, but we can derive general lessons with often-profound implications.

Put even less gloomily, it is not too difficult to extract/ synthesise key insights from policy theories, explain their relevance, and use them to inform discussions about how to promote your preferred form of evidence use.

The only remaining problem is that, although the resultant advice looks quite straightforward, it is far easier said than done. The proposed actions are more akin to the Labours of Hercules than [PAC: insert reference to something easier].

They include:

  1. Find out where the ‘action’ is, so that you can find the right audience for your evidence. Why? There are many policymakers and influencers spread across many levels and types of government.
  2. Learn and follow the ‘rules of the game’. Why? Each policymaking venue has its own rules of engagement and evidence gathering, and the rules are often informal and unwritten.
  3. Gain access to ‘policy networks’. Why? Most policy is processed at a low level of government, beyond the public spotlight, between relatively small groups of policymakers and influencers. They build up trust as they work together, learning who is reliable and authoritative, and converging on how to use evidence to understand the nature and solution to policy problems.
  4. Learn the language. Why? Each venue has its own language to reflect dominant ideas, beliefs, or ways to understand a policy problem. In some arenas, there is a strong respect for a ‘hierarchy’ of evidence. In others, they key reference point may be value for money. In some cases, the language reflects the closing-off of some policy solutions (such as redistributing resources from one activity to another).
  5. Exploit windows of opportunity. Why? Events, and changes in socioeconomic conditions, often prompt shifts of attention to policy issues. ‘Policy entrepreneurs’ lie in wait for the right time to exploit a shift in the motive and opportunity of a policymaker to pay attention to and try to solve a problem.

So far so good, until you consider the effort it would take to achieve any of these things: you may need to devote the best part of your career to these tasks with no guarantee of success.

Put more positively, it is better to be equipped with these insights, and to appreciate the limits to our actions, than to think we can use top tips to achieve ‘research impact’ in a more straightforward way.

Kathryn Oliver and I describe these ‘how to’ tips in this post and, in this article in Political Studies Review, use a wider focus on policymaking environments to produce a more realistic sense of what individual researchers – and research-producing organisations – could achieve.

There is some sensible-enough advice out there for individuals – produce good evidence, communicate it well, form relationships with policymakers, be available, and so on – but I would exercise caution when it begins to recommend being ‘entrepreneurial’. The opportunities to be entrepreneurial are not shared equally, most entrepreneurs fail, and we can likely better explain their success with reference to their environment than their skill.

hang-in-there-baby

3 Comments

Filed under agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, UK politics and policy

3 responses to “Managing expectations about the use of evidence in policy

  1. Pingback: The Politics of Evidence-Based Policymaking: ANZSOG talks | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  2. Pingback: Reflections from #TransformURE: Marc Geddes – Transforming the Use of Research Evidence

  3. Pingback: Evidence-based policymaking and the ‘new policy sciences’ | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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