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, 76, 3, 399–402 DOI:10.1111/puar.12555 PDF
- Paul Cairney (2017) “Evidence-based best practice is more political than it looks: a case study of the ‘Scottish Approach’”, Evidence and Policy, 13, 3, 499-515 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
- Paul Cairney and Mikine Yamazaki (2017) ‘A comparison of tobacco policy in the UK and Japan: if the scientific evidence is identical, why is there a major difference in policy?’ Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis, forthcoming PDF
- Paul Cairney (2018) ‘The UK government’s imaginative use of evidence to make policy’, British Politics Preview PDF
- Paul Cairney and Kirstein Rummery (2018) ‘Feminising politics to close the evidence-policy gap: the case of social policy in Scotland’, Australian Journal of Public Administration, forthcoming (Open Access) Preview PDF
- Paul Cairney and Christopher M. Weible (2017) ‘The new policy sciences: combining the cognitive science of choice, multiple theories of context, and basic and applied analysis’, Policy Sciences, 50, 4, 619-27 Open Access
- Paul Cairney and Richard Kwiatkowski (2017) ‘How to communicate effectively with policymakers: combine insights from psychology and policy studies’, Palgrave Communications PDF (see also Kwiatkowski Youtube on organisational politics)
Blog posts: 7 key themes
1. Use psychological insights to influence the use of evidence
My most-current concern. The same basic theme is that (a) people (including policymakers) are ‘cognitive misers’ seeking ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ shortcuts to gather information for action, so you won’t get far if you (b) bombard them with information, or (c) call them idiots.
Three ways to communicate more effectively with policymakers (shows how to use psychological insights to promote evidence in policymaking)
The Psychology of Evidence Based Policymaking: Who Will Speak For the Evidence if it Doesn’t Speak for Itself? (older paper, linking studies of psychology with studies of EBPM)
Older posts on the same theme:
2. How to use policy process insights to influence the use of evidence
I try to simplify key insights about the policy process to show to use evidence in it. One key message is to give up on the idea of an orderly policy process described by the policy cycle model. What should you do if a far more complicated process exists?
Three habits of successful policy entrepreneurs (shows how entrepreneurs are influential in politics)
Why doesn’t evidence win the day in policy and policymaking? and What does it take to turn scientific evidence into policy? Lessons for illegal drugs from tobacco and There is no blueprint for evidence-based policy, so what do you do? (3 posts describing the conditions that must be met for evidence to ‘win the day’)
Writing for Impact: what you need to know, and 5 ways to know it (explains how our knowledge of the policy process helps communicate to policymakers)
How can political actors take into account the limitations of evidence-based policy-making? 5 key points (presentation to European Parliament-European University Institute ‘Policy Roundtable’ 2016)
Evidence Based Policy Making: 5 things you need to know and do (presentation to Open Society Foundations New York 2016)
What 10 questions should we put to evidence for policy experts? (part of a series of videos produced by the European Commission)
3. How to combine principles on ‘good evidence’, ‘good governance’, and ‘good practice’
My argument here is that EBPM is about deciding at the same time what is: (1) good evidence, and (2) a good way to make and deliver policy. If you just focus on one at a time – or consider one while ignoring the other – you cannot produce a defendable way to promote evidence-informed policy delivery.
Kathryn Oliver and I have just published an article on the relationship between evidence and policy (summary of and link to our article on this very topic)
We all want ‘evidence based policy making’ but how do we do it? (presentation to the Scottish Government on 2016)
4. Face up to your need to make profound choices to pursue EBPM
These posts have arisen largely from my attendance at academic-practitioner conferences on evidence and policy. Many participants tell the same story about the primacy of scientific evidence challenged by post-truth politics and emotional policymakers. I don’t find this argument convincing or useful. So, in many posts, I challenge these participants to think about more pragmatic ways to sum up and do something effective about their predicament.
Political science improves our understanding of evidence-based policymaking, but does it produce better advice? (shows how our knowledge of policymaking clarifies dilemmas about engagement)
The role of ‘standards for evidence’ in ‘evidence informed policymaking’ (argues that a strict adherence to scientific principles may help you become a good researcher but not an effective policy influencer)
How far should you go to secure academic ‘impact’ in policymaking? From ‘honest brokers’ to ‘research purists’ and Machiavellian manipulators (you have to make profound ethical and strategic choices when seeking to maximise the use of evidence in policy)
Principles of science advice to government: key problems and feasible solutions (calling yourself an ‘honest broker’ while complaining about ‘post-truth politics’ is a cop out)
What sciences count in government science advice? (political science, obvs)
I know my audience, but does my other audience know I know my audience? (compares the often profoundly different ways in which scientists and political scientists understand and evaluate EBPM – this matters because, for example, we rarely discuss power in scientist-led debates)
Idealism versus pragmatism in politics and policymaking: … evidence-based policymaking (how to decide between idealism and pragmatism when engaging in politics)
Realistic ‘realist’ reviews: why do you need them and what might they look like? (if you privilege impact you need to build policy relevance into systematic reviews)
‘Co-producing’ comparative policy research: how far should we go to secure policy impact? (describes ways to build evidence advocacy into research design)
The Politics of Evidence (review of – and link to – Justin Parkhurt’s book on the ‘good governance’ of evidence production and use)
5. For students and researchers wanting to read/ hear more
These posts are relatively theory-heavy, linking quite clearly to the academic study of public policy. Hopefully they provide a simple way into the policy literature which can, at times, be dense and jargony.
Practical Lessons from Policy Theories (series of posts on the policy process, offering potential lessons for advocates of evidence use in policy)
Can you want evidence based policymaking if you don’t really know what it is? (defines each word in EBPM)
Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Success and Failure (Evaluation) (using evidence to evaluate policy is inevitably political)
Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Policy Transfer and Learning (so is learning from the experience of others)
What is ‘Complex Government’ and what can we do about it? (read about it)
How Can Policy Theory Have an Impact on Policy Making? (on translating policy theories into useful advice)
The role of evidence in UK policymaking after Brexit (argues that many challenges/ opportunities for evidence advocates will not change after Brexit)
Why is there more tobacco control policy than alcohol control policy in the UK? (it’s not just because there is more evidence of harm)
Evidence Based Policy Making: If You Want to Inject More Science into Policymaking You Need to Know the Science of Policymaking and The politics of evidence-based policymaking: focus on ambiguity as much as uncertainty and Revisiting the main ‘barriers’ between evidence and policy: focus on ambiguity, not uncertainty and The barriers to evidence based policymaking in environmental policy (early versions of what became the chapters of the book)
6. Using storytelling to promote evidence use
This is increasingly a big interest for me. Storytelling is key to the effective conduct and communication of scientific research. Let’s not pretend we’re objective people just stating the facts (which is the least convincing story of all).
7. The major difficulties in using evidence for policy to reduce inequalities
These posts show how policymakers think about how to combine (a) often-patchy evidence with (b) their beliefs and (c) an electoral imperative to produce policies on inequalities, prevention, and early intervention. I suggest that it’s better to understand and engage with this process than complain about policy-based-evidence from the side-lines. If you do the latter, policymakers will ignore you.
All of this discussion can be found under the EBPM category: https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/category/evidence-based-policymaking-ebpm/T
See also the special issue on maximizing the use of evidence in policy