This page brings together my work on ‘evidence-based policymaking’, including a book The Politics of Evidence-Based Policy Making, some journal articles, and many posts including The Science of Evidence-based Policymaking: How to Be Heard. Please scroll down to see the main argument and links to further reading (including a free pre-publication version of my book) and click Evidence to see a forthcoming series of articles on evidence and policy.
(for more policy videos see Urban Policy Lab Konstanz)
“Cairney wisely navigates between the naïve peddlers of ‘evidence-based policy’, and the grumpy cynics who think such an endeavour is hopeless. The book gives some much needed insights into the psychology, political theory and cognitive biases of decision-making. It’s essential reading for anybody with a practical interest in seeing evidence have – at the very least- a foot in the policymaker’s door” Jonathan Breckon, Head of Alliance for Useful Evidence
The main argument
Policymakers are not willing or able to consider all evidence relevant to policy problems. Instead, they employ two shortcuts: ‘rational’, by pursuing clear goals and prioritizing certain kinds and sources of information, and ‘irrational’, by drawing on emotions, gut feelings, deeply held beliefs, and habits to make decisions quickly.
This action takes place in a complex policymaking system in which policymaker attention can lurch from issue to issue, policy is made routinely in subsystems, and the ‘rules of the game’ take time to learn.
Many studies focus only on the first short cut. They identify the problem of uncertainty that arises when policymakers have incomplete information, and seek to solve it by improving the supply of information and encouraging academic-practitioner networks and workshops.
They ignore the importance of a wider process of debate, coalition formation, lobbying, and manipulation, to reduce ambiguity and establish a dominant way to ‘frame‘ policy problems. While scientific evidence cannot solve the problem of ambiguity, persuasion and framing can help determine the demand for scientific evidence.
Therefore, the second solution is to work out how best to engage in a process of framing and persuasion by, for example, forming coalitions with actors with the same aims or beliefs, and combining scientific information with simple stories to exploit or adapt to the emotional and ideological biases of policymakers.
This is less about packaging information to make it simpler to understand, and more about responding to the ways in which policymakers think and, therefore, how they demand information.
In the book, I present this argument in three steps:
- I bring together a range of insights from policy theory, to show the huge amount of accumulated knowledge of policymaking on which other scientists and evidence advocates should draw.
- I discuss two systematic reviews – one by Oliver et al, and one that Wellstead and I developed – of the literature on ‘barriers’ to evidence and policy in health and environmental studies. They show that the vast majority of studies in each field employ minimal policy theory and present solutions which focus only on uncertainty.
- I identify the practical consequences for actors trying to maximize the uptake of scientific evidence within government.
My conclusion has profound implications for the role of research and scientific experts in policymaking. Scientists have a stark choice: to produce information and accept that it will have a limited impact (but that scientists will maintain an often-useful image of objectivity), or to go beyond one’s comfort zone, and expertise, to engage in a normative enterprise that can increase impact at the expense of objectivity.
You can read a summary of these issues here, which includes a brief lecture:
The full pre-submission draft of the book is here:
- Paul Cairney, Kathryn Oliver, and Adam Wellstead (2016) ‘To Bridge the Divide between Evidence and Policy: Reduce Ambiguity as Much as Uncertainty’, Public Administration Review, Early View (forthcoming) DOI:10.1111/puar.12555 PDF
- Paul Cairney (2016) “Evidence-based best practice is more political than it looks: a case study of the ‘Scottish Approach’”, Evidence and Policy, Early View Open Access (forthcoming) PDF
- Paul Cairney and Kathryn Oliver (2017) ‘Evidence-based policymaking is not like evidence-based medicine, so how far should you go to bridge the divide between evidence and policy?’ Health Research Policy and Systems (HARPS), DOI: 10.1186/s12961-017-0192-x PDF
Political science improves our understanding of evidence-based policymaking, but does it produce better advice? (part of a continuous reflection on the implications of the issues raised in the book; I’m already rethinking the conclusion before the book is in print!).
The original title was Evidence Based Policy Making: If You Want to Inject More Science into Policymaking You Need to Know the Science of Policymaking. It was built on an earlier paper that I did at a conference last year, and extended substantially to examine cases studies in the health and natural sciences.
Here are some posts based on chapter 4:
See also these blog posts on EBPM themes, including:
All of this discussion can be found under the EBPM category: https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/category/evidence-based-policymaking-ebpm/T