Evidence

Palgrave C special

In partnership with Palgrave Communications, I am inviting submissions to (and editing) a peer-reviewed collection of research and review articles on the ‘politics of evidence-based policymaking’. Our aim is to learn from many disciplinary and practitioner perspectives about how to maximize the use of evidence in politics and policymaking. It will complement an existing series, Scientific advice to governments, and help establish a hub for open access academic discussion of evidence and policy. In this extended blog post, I describe the context to the new series and the articles that we would like to publish. For more on EBPM, see my blog page.

Many academics and scientists bemoan the inevitability of ‘policy based evidence’ rather than ‘evidence based policy’ or ‘evidence based policymaking’.

Some express the naïve view that policymakers should think like scientists and/ or that evidence-based policymaking should be more like a caricature of evidence-based medicine in which everyone supports the same hierarchy of evidence. Others try to work out how they can improve the supply of scientific evidence or set up new institutions to get policymakers to pay more attention to it.

Yet, a more pragmatic solution is to work out how and why policymakers demand information, and the political and complex policymaking context in which they operate. Only then can we produce evidence-based strategies based on how the world works rather than how we would like it to work.

This new strategy has profound implications for scholars trying to maximize the use of their preferred forms of evidence in policy and policymaking:

Scientists require new knowledge, insights, and training

For scholars in areas such as health, environmental, natural, and physical science, it requires new skills such as the ability to turn a large amount of scientific evidence into simple and effective stories that appeal to the biases of policymakers, and to form alliances with key actors operating in many levels and types of government. The development of these skills goes hand in hand with pragmatism, to accept that policymakers: have different backgrounds and training, do not think like them, face different pressures to gather and act on information, and do not share their understanding of evidence-based policymaking.

Unfortunately, such insights are not part of the scientific curriculum. Instead, scientists are increasingly expected to make an ‘impact’ on policy without enough training to understand the policy process. Further, they may be resistant to pragmatic strategies and compromise if it involves finding ways to ‘dumb down’ their evidence, come to decisions without gathering sufficient evidence, or working with other actors – in government and business – in ways that they feel will corrupt their scientific integrity or credibility. Why spend years training to produce the best evidence only to find that policymakers ignore it or reject it in minutes? Why engage in workshops with policymakers who ‘just don’t get it’?

The answer may be simple: to increase the uptake of your evidence. However, acceptance of that answer is another matter, particularly if a pragmatic solution is not backed up convincingly with evidence. For example, do policy studies actually provide a convincing story about how to move from evidence to action?

Policy scientists may be prompted to shift their focus from interesting problems to real-world solutions

Let’s say that you are convinced by my argument and are looking for new and accessible insights from fields such as policy studies. Where do you look and how long will it take to understand the field? If you are not trained in policy analysis or scholarship, it is not easy to access and learn from insights from policy studies. The literature is full of jargon and tends to be produced in an uncoordinated way. I provide my own interpretation and regular ‘take-home messages’ on evidence-based policymaking from the literature, but the source material will not be as easy to access or translate if your training is in another field.

One solution is for policy scholars to show more clearly how their insights will make a difference to the policy practitioners and actors in other scientific disciplines who seek simple, easy to follow, and effective strategies in a short amount of time. This outcome requires an ability to turn a scientific understanding of how the policymaking process works into a practical understanding of how to operate effectively within it. It is easier said than done: we have many concepts to identify the problem, or explain the vagaries of policy process, but these concepts do not come with a ready-made solution.

Frankly, not many policy scholars are interested in dedicating their careers to providing such advice. The few willing participants recognize the pitfalls of: turning knowledge of complex and often unpredictable policymaking systems into simple rules of engagement, making value judgements about the role of scientists in policymaking, and identifying the lengths to which they should go to maximize the impact of their evidence.

In fact, the identification of problems and solutions are best seen as separate processes which may require separate skills and insights. For example, we may seek to understand how: people learn, think, make decisions, and form effective partnerships with key allies; and, how people with different backgrounds and ways of thinking can cooperate effectively. Or, we may seek lessons on how to turn key messages from evidence into convincing messages and stories, challenge other actors providing misleading or competing messages, and learn how particular forms of evidence or evidence-gathering gain higher traction when they are ‘institutionalized’ in government (generating and paying attention to evidence is part of a ‘standard operating procedure’).

We require input from scholars beyond the usual suspects, to produce truly interdisciplinary insights

If so, where might we generate those insights? I suggest that we will find them in a wide range of academic disciplines, from the study of policymaking and organizational processes to the study of people, how we learn, the stories we tell, and the positions we – and our ideas – occupy in government and society.

We require more evidence and a special issue of a journal!

Therefore, in partnership with Palgrave Communications, I am editing a special collection of articles on this topic. Our aim is to learn from many disciplinary and practitioner perspectives, about how to tell good stories, form networks, influence allies, understand politics enough to engage effectively within it, and identify the criteria that policymakers use to decide that decision-making processes are sufficiently ‘evidence informed’.

We also want to explore the practical and ethical implications of academic engagement in policy, particularly since our series coincides with a shift, in countries such as the UK, to the need to demonstrate academic ‘impact’.

For example, what dilemmas arise when we move from suppliers of evidence to participants and suppliers of advice? Should we be trying to manipulate policymakers to maximize their attention to scientific evidence and, if so, where do we draw the line? Can we learn from elections and referendums about the ways in which politicians, the media, and public treat ‘experts’ and the ways in which experts identify the lack of attention to their evidence? If so, how should experts respond to increase the uptake of their evidence?

The next steps: a call for interest, ideas, and papers

My aim is to make this collection as accessible, interesting, and informative as possible to a wide audience of scholars, practitioners, and policymakers. I will also provide an unusually high amount of direction, to set an overarching research question – how can we maximise the use of evidence in politics and policy? – and series of supportive questions, so that we can produce a series of articles that is greater than the sum of its parts. If we succeed, this collection will inform our intellectual agendas, the ways in which we train or give advice to academics and policymakers, and the ways in which scholars try to engage with voters.

The articles that we are about to commission

What can advocates of ‘evidence-based policymaking’ learn fromevidence based medicine’?

I often describe evidence-based policymaking in contrast to a caricature of evidence-based medicine (EBM) in which the aim is gather the best evidence on the effectiveness of policy interventions, based on a hierarchy of research methods which favours randomised control trials and their systematic review, and ensure that this evidence has a direct impact on healthcare and public health, to exhort practitioners to replace bad interventions with good. Yet, EBM is often more sophisticated and pragmatic than my description suggests, and key studies show how advocates of ‘state of the art’ evidence work with ‘street level’ practitioners and service users to combine evidence with experience, values, and preferences to produce high ownership in policy interventions. In this article, contributors review this literature on EBM to identify the relevance of new strategies to the advocates of scientific evidence in policymaking.

What can we learn from psychology about how policymakers think, act, and use evidence?

We know that policymakers cannot pay attention to all of the things for which they are responsible, or understand all of the information they use to make decisions. Instead, they use two shorts cuts to gather enough information to make decisions quickly: ‘rational’, by pursuing clear goals and prioritizing certain kinds and sources of information, and ‘irrational’, by drawing on emotions, gut feelings, deeply held beliefs, habits, and what is familiar to them, to make decisions quickly. We can use this basic insight to recommend a shift in strategy for scientists trying to influence policymakers: focus on persuasion by identifying and manipulating their ‘fast thinking’ rather than bombarding them with evidence in the hope that they will get round to ‘slow thinking’. Yet, such recommendations can only take us so far without a more sophisticated understanding of policymaker psychology and the role of factors such as group dynamics and the rules that groups follow within organisations. In this article, contributors provide a more comprehensive account of the ways in which psychoanalytic principles can inform policy studies.

How can we use the ‘science of stories’ to produce effective scientific stories?

The Narrative Policy Framework (NPF) seeks to measure how actors use stories to influence policymaking. Narratives are simplified accounts of the origins, aims, and likely impacts of policies. Actors use them strategically to reinforce or oppose policy measures. Narratives have a setting, characters, plot, and moral. They can be compared to marketing, as persuasion based more on appealing to an audience’s beliefs than on the ‘facts’. People will pay attention to certain narratives because they are ‘boundedly rational’, seeking shortcuts to gather sufficient information, and prone to accept simple stories that confirm their biases, exploit their emotions, and/or come from a source they trust. The NPF draws on this understanding of policymaking, and insights from other theories, to generate scientific studies of the success and failure of particular stories in particular case studies. In this article, contributors use this evidence to identify the key aspects of storytelling that actors can use to maximize attention to, or the uptake of, scientific evidence in policymaking.

What can scientists learn from Science and Technology Studies?

There are well-established fields in which scholars identify the role of science and technology in policy.  They often combine discussions of epistemic communities, in which like-minded scholars, practitioners, and policymakers form international networks based on similar understandings of the world, with analysis of the role of knowledge in policy (from direct impact to an ‘enlightenment function’), and of the potential strategies of scientists. In this context, our contributor notes the rise in demand for evidence in key fields – such as health and environmental policy – but continued uncertainty about the role that expertise and evidence can and should play in policymaking. Our contributor cuts through this uncertainty to identify key lessons for scientists trying to engage directly in policymaking.

What can we learn from feminist strategies to combine evidence with advocacy?

Feminist scholarship offers an opportunity to simultaneously learn from and be challenged by other approaches. On the one hand, it offers experience of attempts to combine evidence with advocacy. The aim is often explicitly emancipatory: to produce research questions with normative elements, combining research with recommendations for major social and political change, rather than producing research first and considering ‘impact’ later. On the other hand, many approaches reject dominant preconceptions of science built on objectivity and hierarchy, to propose new ways of understanding and researching the world, and challenge the primacy of one (‘scientific’) form of knowledge or evidence in public and policymaking deliberation. On that basis, the aim of this article is to balance potentially contradictory objectives, to offer advice to scientists on how to maximize the use, and reconsider the role, of scientific evidence and expertise in policy.

The articles that we are talking about commissioning

What can we learn from ‘social marketing’ about how to increase the uptake of scientific evidence?

Social marketing involves using insights from commercial marketing to promote changes in individual and social behaviour. Its advocates often encourage policymakers to use the techniques developed by private companies, to encourage the consumption of goods and services, against them, to encourage individuals to adopt, for example, healthier or more ethical behaviour. In both cases, such marketing is based on behavioural science and the use of branding and framing to influence behaviour. In this article, the contributors would identify the ways in which such strategies can be used to influence policymaker thinking (and the ethical dilemmas that arise).

What can education studies teach us about how policymakers learn?

Advocates of evidence-based policymaking are asking policymakers to learn primarily from scientists and scientific evidence (and only few recognise the need for two-way learning). Yet, this is easier said than done, and few accounts go beyond the exhortation for policymakers to learn to think more like scientists, to consider theoretically-driven and evidence-based ways in which policymakers might be encouraged to develop new or unfamiliar ways of thinking. This involves understanding the psychology of learning, combining it with knowledge of teaching and education approaches, recognising the very different context in which students and practitioners learn, and questioning the idea that ‘scientific thinking’ is necessarily good thinking. In this article, contributors would identify the ways in which insights from education practices can be used to inform our ideas about policymaker learning and ‘training’. If scientists were willing to be ‘trained’ to think more like policymakers, and vice versa, how would you do it?

How do practitioners and policymakers understand the policy process?

Organizations such as the Alliance for Useful Evidence have considerable experience in ‘translating’ scientific insights into reports that are far more accessible (physically and intellectually) to a practitioner audience than the standard scientific journal article. To build on this practice, we aim to commission a short report from a practitioner perspective, combining some knowledge of policy studies (or another relevant disciplinary perspective) with ‘real world’ insights. The aim is to help scholars understand how certain practitioners – such as elected or unelected policymakers, ‘street level bureaucrats’, or service users/ stakeholders involved in the design of public services – understand their task and the role of evidence within it. For example, the article could focus on how policymakers gather any available relevant evidence to help make a decision quickly, or other examples of practices which scientists need to understand to maximize their impact within government (such as the potential to ‘cherry pick’ evidence when there is an overwhelming volume of it, particularly when some of it is contradictory). It could also examine the relative merit of ‘the evidence’ compared to other, sometimes conflicting, priorities, such as a society’s or government’s values and norms, and economic drivers.

The articles ideas to generate your interest

We also encourage article submissions which answer these kinds of questions:

  1. What practical insights about ‘evidence based policymaking’ can we generate from comparable fields such as ‘evidence based management’ and ‘evidence-based education’?
  2. What can studies of fiction and folklore tell us about how and why people learn from and act on simple stories?
  3. What can we learn from election and referendum campaign management about how to encourage action with very simple messages? Articles might (a) review the literature on campaign management to produce general insights, or (b) use case studies such as the recent EU referendum in the UK to respond to the suggestion that people based their votes primarily on their values and emotions rather than ‘facts’ (or accept incorrect ‘facts’). In both cases, what are the implications for actors seeking to maximise the use of evidence in political debates?
  4. How can we generate practical insights from the ethnography of policymaking?
  5. What can we learn from case studies of policymaking in which certain forms of knowledge or knowledge gathering are taken for granted? For example, the ‘medical model’ often describes a tendency to take a medical understanding of problems and solutions for granted, at the exclusion of other ways of thinking or forms of evidence. There are also some forms of evidence gathering – such as the demand for legal advice, or adherence to rules of accounting – which are built into the policy process. In that context, what can we learn from the professional practices that are used routinely to make decisions? Or, in cases such as economics, what are the implications of calculations that are taken for granted in government (such as value for money exercises, or economic forecasts) but often ignored or rejected in public debate?
  6. What methodological or ethical issues arise when we try to derive insights from so many disciplines about the appropriate use of evidence in policy (and how do we solve them)?
  7. What insights from studies of policy learning and transfer can we use to encourage the more systematic use of evidence by policymakers, when they seek to learn from the experiences of others?
  8. What other approaches offer insights to, and challenge, scientists simultaneously? For example, post-colonial studies often challenge the very basis for the assertion of the primacy of particular forms of scientific knowledge. If so, can the relevant literature offer advice – on, for example, the ways in which different groups generate and use knowledge, and often reject evidential hierarchies – or would it more likely prompt us to reject the idea of maximizing the use of scientific evidence in policymaking?

 

We are also inviting new article proposals

We also welcome new ideas and insights on topics that you think we missed. If you are interested in submitting a paper for the collection you should send a short abstract-length proposal to the Managing Editor (Palcomms@palgrave.com). The Managing Editor can also answer general questions throughout the process. You can also contact me at p.a.cairney@stir.ac.uk if you would like some advice before you make the abstract submission.

The practical steps: what will it cost and how long do you have?

Palgrave Communications is an Open Access journal with an Article Processing Change (APC) of US$1200/£750/€1,000 (plus VAT or local taxes where applicable). Please do not be put off by the APC: it has a scheme in place to waive or reduce APC costs for authors who lack funding (via their funding body or institution) to cover open access publication charges. The in-house editorial team can provide more advice on this policy (Palcomms@palgrave.com).

You can submit article proposals until December 2016, with a submission deadline for full papers April 2017. Since this is an OA journal with a quick turnaround, we expect to release the first part of the series from mid-2017.

UPDATES and DISCUSSION

I will use this page to provide updates and suggestions related to the special issue.

For example, I have recently seen some blog posts or articles discussing relevant issues:

James Lloyd: So you want to change policy? Six steps for academics looking to achieve policy change

My reading of Jo Maybin‘s post and additional information is that actors such as scientists miss out if they simply bemoan practices inside government. Instead, they should try to understand them: for example, what drives civil servants and how do they use simple rules to gather a lot of information in a short space of time? One answer is that they speak to people they know and trust: a factor that (in my impression) is exploited better by well-organised interest groups than scholars.

Behind the ‘Policy Wonkers’ title is a serious discussion of bringing together academics and practitioners to discuss the use of evidence in policy.

Donald Kettl’s article in Governance (£) lists 10 points on the theme of policy analysts describing evidence in a way that policymakers can understand.

You can also follow these debates on my EBPM page

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