Tag Archives: hierarchy of evidence

Why doesn’t evidence win the day in policy and policymaking?

cairney-southampton-evidence-win-the-dayPolitics has a profound influence on the use of evidence in policy, but we need to look ‘beyond the headlines’ for a sense of perspective on its impact.

It is tempting for scientists to identify the pathological effect of politics on policymaking, particularly after high profile events such as the ‘Brexit’ vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump as US President. We have allegedly entered an era of ‘post-truth politics’ in which ideology and emotion trumps evidence and expertise (a story told many times at events like this), particularly when issues are salient.

Yet, most policy is processed out of this public spotlight, because the flip side of high attention to one issue is minimal attention to most others. Science has a crucial role in this more humdrum day-to-day business of policymaking which is far more important than visible. Indeed, this lack of public visibility can help many actors secure a privileged position in the policy process (and further exclude citizens).

In some cases, experts are consulted routinely. There is often a ‘logic’ of consultation with the ‘usual suspects’, including the actors most able to provide evidence-informed advice. In others, scientific evidence is often so taken for granted that it is part of the language in which policymakers identify problems and solutions.

In that context, we need better explanations of an ‘evidence-policy’ gap than the pathologies of politics and egregious biases of politicians.

To understand this process, and appearance of contradiction between excluded versus privileged experts, consider the role of evidence in politics and policymaking from three different perspectives.

The perspective of scientists involved primarily in the supply of evidence

Scientists produce high quality evidence only for politicians often ignore it or, even worse, distort its message to support their ideologically-driven policies. If they expect ‘evidence-based policymaking’ they soon become disenchanted and conclude that ‘policy-based evidence’ is more likely. This perspective has long been expressed in scientific journals and commentaries, but has taken on new significance following ‘Brexit’ and Trump.

The perspective of elected politicians

Elected politicians are involved primarily in managing government and maximising public and organisational support for policies. So, scientific evidence is one piece of a large puzzle. They may begin with a manifesto for government and, if elected, feel an obligation to carry it out. Evidence may play a part in that process but the search for evidence on policy solutions is not necessarily prompted by evidence of policy problems.

Further, ‘evidence based policy’ is one of many governance principles that politicians should feel the need to juggle. For example, in Westminster systems, ministers may try to delegate policymaking to foster ‘localism’ and/ or pragmatic policymaking, but also intervene to appear to be in control of policy, to foster a sense of accountability built on an electoral imperative. The likely mix of delegation and intervention seems almost impossible to predict, and this dynamic has a knock-on effect for evidence-informed policy. In some cases, central governments roll out the same basic policy intervention and limit local discretion; in others, it identifies broad outcomes and invites other bodies to gather evidence on how best to meet them. These differences in approach can have profound consequences on the models of evidence-informed policy available to us (see the example of Scottish policymaking).

Political science and policy studies provide a third perspective

Policy theories help us identify the relationship between evidence and policy by showing that a modern focus on ‘evidence-based policymaking’ (EBPM) is one of many versions of the same fairy tale – about ‘rational’ policymaking – that have developed in the post-war period. We talk about ‘bounded rationality’ to identify key ways in which policymakers or organisations could not achieve ‘comprehensive rationality’:

  1. They cannot separate values and facts.
  2. They have multiple, often unclear, objectives which are difficult to rank in any meaningful way.
  3. They have to use major shortcuts to gather a limited amount of information in a limited time.
  4. They can’t make policy from the ‘top down’ in a cycle of ordered and linear stages.

Limits to ‘rational’ policymaking: two shortcuts to make decisions

We can sum up the first three bullet points with one statement: policymakers have to try to evaluate and solve many problems without the ability to understand what they are, how they feel about them as a whole, and what effect their actions will have.

To do so, they use 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, habits, and the familiar to make decisions quickly.

Consequently, the focus of policy theories is on the links between evidence, persuasion, and framing issues to produce or reinforce a dominant way to define policy problems. Successful actors combine evidence and emotional appeals or simple stories to capture policymaker attention, and/ or help policymakers interpret information through the lens of their strongly-held beliefs.

Scientific evidence plays its part, but scientists often make the mistake of trying to bombard policymakers with evidence when they should be trying to (a) understand how policymakers understand problems, so that they can anticipate their demand for evidence, and (b) frame their evidence according to the cognitive biases of their audience.

Policymaking in ‘complex systems’ or multi-level policymaking environments

Policymaking takes place in less ordered, less hierarchical, and less predictable environment than suggested by the image of the policy cycle. Such environments are made up of:

  1. a wide range of actors (individuals and organisations) influencing policy at many levels of government
  2. a proliferation of rules and norms followed by different levels or types of government
  3. close relationships (‘networks’) between policymakers and powerful actors
  4. a tendency for certain beliefs or ‘paradigms’ to dominate discussion
  5. shifting policy conditions and events that can prompt policymaker attention to lurch at short notice.

These five properties – plus a ‘model of the individual’ built on a discussion of ‘bounded rationality’ – make up the building blocks of policy theories (many of which I summarise in 1000 Word posts). I say this partly to aid interdisciplinary conversation: of course, each theory has its own literature and jargon, and it is difficult to compare and combine their insights, but if you are trained in a different discipline it’s unfair to ask you devote years of your life to studying policy theory to end up at this point.

To show that policy theories have a lot to offer, I have been trying to distil their collective insights into a handy guide – using this same basic format – that you can apply to a variety of different situations, from explaining painfully slow policy change in some areas but dramatic change in others, to highlighting ways in which you can respond effectively.

We can use this approach to help answer many kinds of questions. With my Southampton gig in mind, let’s use some examples from public health and prevention.

Why doesn’t evidence win the day in tobacco policy?

My colleagues and I try to explain why it takes so long for the evidence on smoking and health to have a proportionate impact on policy. Usually, at the back of my mind, is a public health professional audience trying to work out why policymakers don’t act quickly or effectively enough when presented with unequivocal scientific evidence. More recently, they wonder why there is such uneven implementation of a global agreement – the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control – that almost every country in the world has signed.

We identify three conditions under which evidence will ‘win the day’:

  1. Actors are able to use scientific evidence to persuade policymakers to pay attention to, and shift their understanding of, policy problems. In leading countries, it took decades to command attention to the health effects of smoking, reframe tobacco primarily as a public health epidemic (not an economic good), and generate support for the most effective evidence-based solutions.
  2. The policy environment becomes conducive to policy change. A new and dominant frame helps give health departments (often in multiple venues) a greater role; health departments foster networks with public health and medical groups at the expense of the tobacco industry; and, they emphasise the socioeconomic conditions – reductions in smoking prevalence, opposition to tobacco control, and economic benefits to tobacco – supportive of tobacco control.
  3. Actors exploit ‘windows of opportunity’ successfully. A supportive frame and policy environment maximises the chances of high attention to a public health epidemic and provides the motive and opportunity of policymakers to select relatively restrictive policy instruments.

So, scientific evidence is a necessary but insufficient condition for major policy change. Key actors do not simply respond to new evidence: they use it as a resource to further their aims, to frame policy problems in ways that will generate policymaker attention, and underpin technically and politically feasible solutions that policymakers will have the motive and opportunity to select. This remains true even when the evidence seems unequivocal and when countries have signed up to an international agreement which commits them to major policy change. Such commitments can only be fulfilled over the long term, when actors help change the policy environment in which these decisions are made and implemented. So far, this change has not occurred in most countries (or, in other aspects of public health in the UK, such as alcohol policy).

Why doesn’t evidence win the day in prevention and early intervention policy?

UK and devolved governments draw on health and economic evidence to make a strong and highly visible commitment to preventive policymaking, in which the aim is to intervene earlier in people’s lives to improve wellbeing and reduce socioeconomic inequalities and/ or public sector costs. This agenda has existed in one form or another for decades without the same signs of progress we now associate with areas like tobacco control. Indeed, the comparison is instructive, since prevention policy rarely meets the three conditions outlined above:

  1. Prevention is a highly ambiguous term and many actors make sense of it in many different ways. There is no equivalent to a major shift in problem definition for prevention policy as a whole, and little agreement on how to determine the most effective or cost-effective solutions.
  2. A supportive policy environment is far harder to identify. Prevention policy cross-cuts many policymaking venues at many levels of government, with little evidence of ‘ownership’ by key venues. Consequently, there are many overlapping rules on how and from whom to seek evidence. Networks are diffuse and hard to manage. There is no dominant way of thinking across government (although the Treasury’s ‘value for money’ focus is key currency across departments). There are many socioeconomic indicators of policy problems but little agreement on how to measure or which measures to privilege (particularly when predicting future outcomes).
  3. The ‘window of opportunity’ was to adopt a vague solution to an ambiguous policy problem, providing a limited sense of policy direction. There have been several ‘windows’ for more specific initiatives, but their links to an overarching policy agenda are unclear.

These limitations help explain slow progress in key areas. The absence of an unequivocal frame, backed strongly by key actors, leaves policy change vulnerable to successful opposition, especially in areas where early intervention has major implications for redistribution (taking from existing services to invest in others) and personal freedom (encouraging or obliging behavioural change). The vagueness and long term nature of policy aims – to solve problems that often seem intractable – makes them uncompetitive, and often undermined by more specific short term aims with a measurable pay-off (as when, for example, funding for public health loses out to funding to shore up hospital management). It is too easy to reframe existing policy solutions as preventive if the definition of prevention remains slippery, and too difficult to demonstrate the population-wide success of measures generally applied to high risk groups.

What happens when attitudes to two key principles – evidence based policy and localism – play out at the same time?

A lot of discussion of the politics of EBPM assumes that there is something akin to a scientific consensus on which policymakers do not act proportionately. Yet, in many areas – such as social policy and social work – there is great disagreement on how to generate and evaluate the best evidence. Broadly speaking, a hierarchy of evidence built on ‘evidence based medicine’ – which has randomised control trials and their systematic review at the top, and practitioner knowledge and service user feedback at the bottom – may be completely subverted by other academics and practitioners. This disagreement helps produce a spectrum of ways in which we might roll-out evidence based interventions, from an RCT-driven roll-out of the same basic intervention to a storytelling driven pursuit of tailored responses built primarily on governance principles (such as to co-produce policy with users).

At the same time, governments may be wrestling with their own governance principles, including EBPM but also regarding the most appropriate balance between centralism and localism.

If you put both concerns together, you have a variety of possible outcomes (and a temptation to ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’) and a set of competing options (outlined in table 1), all under the banner of ‘evidence based’ policymaking.

Table 1 Three ideal types EBBP

What happens when a small amount of evidence goes a very long way?

So, even if you imagine a perfectly sincere policymaker committed to EBPM, you’d still not be quite sure what they took it to mean in practice. If you assume this commitment is a bit less sincere, and you add in the need to act quickly to use the available evidence and satisfy your electoral audience, you get all sorts of responses based in some part on a reference to evidence.

One fascinating case is of the UK Government’s ‘troubled families’ programme which combined bits and pieces of evidence with ideology and a Westminster-style-accountability imperative, to produce:

  • The argument that the London riots were caused by family breakdown and bad parenting.
  • The use of proxy measures to identify the most troubled families
  • The use of superficial performance management to justify notionally extra expenditure for local authorities
  • The use of evidence in a problematic way, from exaggerating the success of existing ‘family intervention projects’ to sensationalising neuroscientific images related to brain development in deprived children …

normal brain

…but also

In other words, some governments feel the need to dress up their evidence-informed policies in a language appropriate to Westminster politics. Unless we understand this language, and the incentives for elected policymakers to use it, we will fail to understand how to act effectively to influence those policymakers.

What can you do to maximise the use of evidence?

When you ask the generic question you can generate a set of transferable strategies to engage in policymaking:

how-to-be-heard

ebpm-5-things-to-do

Yet, as these case studies of public health and social policy suggest, the question lacks sufficient meaning when applied to real world settings. Would you expect the advice that I give to (primarily) natural scientists (primarily in the US) to be identical to advice for social scientists in specific fields (in, say, the UK)?

No, you’d expect me to end with a call for more research! See for example this special issue in which many scholars from many disciplines suggest insights on how to maximise the use of evidence in policy.

Palgrave C special

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Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Prevention policy, Public health, public policy, tobacco, tobacco policy

The Science of Evidence-based Policymaking: How to Be Heard

I was interviewed in Science, on the topic of evidence-based policymaking, and we discussed some top tips for people seeking to maximise the use of evidence in a complex policy process (or, perhaps, feel less dispirited about the lack of EBPM in many cases). If it sparks your interest, I have some other work on this topic:

I am editing a series of forthcoming articles on maximising the use of scientific evidence in policy, and the idea is that health and environmental scientists can learn from many other disciplines about how to, for example, anticipate policymaker psychology, find the right policymaking venue, understand its rules and ‘currency’ (the language people use, to reflect dominant ways of thinking about problems), and tell effective stories to the right people.

Palgrave C special

I have also completed a book, some journal articles (PAR, E&P), and some blog posts on the ‘politics of evidence-based policymaking’.

Pivot cover

Two posts appear in the Guardian political science blog (me, me and Kathryn Oliver).

One post, for practitioners, has ‘5 things you need to know’, and it links to presentations on the same theme to different audiences (Scotland, US, EU).

ebpm-5-things-to-do

In this post, I’m trying to think through in more detail what we do with such insights.

The insights I describe come from policy theory, and I have produced 25 posts which introduce each of them in 1000 words (or, if you are super busy, 500 words). For example, the Science interview mentions a spirograph of many cycles, which is a reference to the idea of a policy cycle. Also look out for the 1000-word posts on framing and narrative and think about how they relate to the use of storytelling in policy.

If you like what you see, and want to see more, have a look at my general list of offerings (home page) or list of books and articles with links to theirs PDFs (CV).

how-to-be-heard

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We all want ‘evidence based policy making’ but how do we do it?

Here are some notes for my talk to the Scottish Government on Thursday as part of its ‘inaugural ‘evidence in policy week’. The advertised abstract is as follows:

A key aim in government is to produce ‘evidence based’ (or ‘informed’) policy and policymaking, but it is easier said than done. It involves two key choices about (1) what evidence counts and how you should gather it, and (2) the extent to which central governments should encourage subnational policymakers to act on that evidence. Ideally, the principles we use to decide on the best evidence should be consistent with the governance principles we adopt to use evidence to make policy, but what happens when they seem to collide? Cairney provides three main ways in which to combine evidence and governance-based principles to help clarify those choices.

I plan to use the same basic structure of the talks I gave to the OSF (New York) and EUI-EP (Florence) in which I argue that every aspect of ‘evidence based policy making’ is riddled with the necessity to make political choices (even when we define EBPM):

ebpm-5-things-to-do

I’ll then ‘zoom in’ on points 4 and 5 regarding the relationship between EBPM and governance principles. They are going to videotape the whole discussion to use for internal discussions, but I can post the initial talk here when it becomes available. Please don’t expect a TED talk (especially the E part of TED).

EBPM and good governance principles

The Scottish Government has a reputation for taking certain governance principles seriously, to promote high stakeholder ‘ownership’ and ‘localism’ on policy, and produce the image of a:

  1. Consensual consultation style in which it works closely with interest groups, public bodies, local government organisations, voluntary sector and professional bodies, and unions when making policy.
  2. Trust-based implementation style indicating a relative ability or willingness to devolve the delivery of policy to public bodies, including local authorities, in a meaningful way

Many aspects of this image were cultivated by former Permanent Secretaries: Sir John Elvidge described a ‘Scottish Model’ focused on joined-up government and outcomes-based approaches to policymaking and delivery, and Sir Peter Housden labelled the ‘Scottish Approach to Policymaking’ (SATP) as an alternative to the UK’s command-and-control model of government, focusing on the ‘co-production’ of policy with local communities and citizens.

The ‘Scottish Approach’ has implications for evidence based policy making

Note the major implication for our definition of EBPM. One possible definition, derived from ‘evidence based medicine’, refers to a hierarchy of evidence in which randomised control trials and their systematic review are at the top, while expertise, professional experience and service user feedback are close to the bottom. An uncompromising use of RCTs in policy requires that we maintain a uniform model, with the same basic intervention adopted and rolled out within many areas. The focus is on identifying an intervention’s ‘active ingredient’, applying the correct dosage, and evaluating its success continuously.

This approach seems to challenge the commitment to localism and ‘co-production’.

At the other end of the spectrum is a storytelling approach to the use of evidence in policy. In this case, we begin with key governance principles – such as valuing the ‘assets’ of individuals and communities – and inviting people to help make and deliver policy. Practitioners and service users share stories of their experiences and invite others to learn from them. There is no model of delivery and no ‘active ingredient’.

This approach seems to challenge the commitment to ‘evidence based policy’

The Goldilocks approach to evidence based policy making: the improvement method

We can understand the Scottish Government’s often-preferred method in that context. It has made a commitment to:

Service performance and improvement underpinned by data, evidence and the application of improvement methodologies

So, policymakers use many sources of evidence to identify promising, make broad recommendations to practitioners about the outcomes they seek, and they train practitioners in the improvement method (a form of continuous learning summed up by a ‘Plan-Do-Study-Act’ cycle).

Table 1 Three ideal types EBBP

This approach appears to offer the best of both worlds; just the right mix of central direction and local discretion, with the promise of combining well-established evidence from sources including RCTs with evidence from local experimentation and experience.

Four unresolved issues in decentralised evidence-based policy making

Not surprisingly, our story does not end there. I think there are four unresolved issues in this process:

  1. The Scottish Government often indicates a preference for improvement methods but actually supports all three of the methods I describe. This might reflect an explicit decision to ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ or the inability to establish a favoured approach.
  2. There is not a single way of understanding ‘improvement methodology’. I describe something akin to a localist model here, but other people describe a far more research-led and centrally coordinated process.
  3. Anecdotally, I hear regularly that key stakeholders do not like the improvement method. One could interpret this as a temporary problem, before people really get it and it starts to work, or a fundamental difference between some people in government and many of the local stakeholders so important to the ‘Scottish approach’.

4. The spectre of democratic accountability and the politics of EBPM

The fourth unresolved issue is the biggest: it’s difficult to know how this approach connects with the most important reference in Scottish politics: the need to maintain Westminster-style democratic accountability, through periodic elections and more regular reports by ministers to the Scottish Parliament. This requires a strong sense of central government and ministerial control – if you know who is in charge, you know who to hold to account or reward or punish in the next election.

In principle, the ‘Scottish approach’ provides a way to bring together key aims into a single narrative. An open and accessible consultation style maximises the gathering of information and advice and fosters group ownership. A national strategic framework, with cross-cutting aims, reduces departmental silos and balances an image of democratic accountability with the pursuit of administrative devolution, through partnership agreements with local authorities, the formation of community planning partnerships, and the encouragement of community and user-driven design of public services. The formation of relationships with public bodies and other organisations delivering services, based on trust, fosters the production of common aims across the public sector, and reduces the need for top-down policymaking. An outcomes-focus provides space for evidence-based and continuous learning about what works.

In practice, a government often needs to appear to take quick and decisive action from the centre, demonstrate policy progress and its role in that progress, and intervene when things go wrong. So, alongside localism it maintains a legislative, financial, and performance management framework which limits localism.

How far do you go to ensure EBPM?

So, when I describe the ‘5 things to do’, usually the fifth element is about how far scientists may want to go, to insist on one model of EBPM when it has the potential to contradict important governance principles relating to consultation and localism. For a central government, the question is starker:

Do you have much choice about your model of EBPM when the democratic imperative is so striking?

I’ll leave it there on a cliff hanger, since these are largely questions to prompt discussion in specific workshops. If you can’t attend, there is further reading on the EBPM and EVIDENCE tabs on this blog, and specific papers on the Scottish dimension

The ‘Scottish Approach to Policy Making’: Implications for Public Service Delivery

Paul Cairney, Siabhainn Russell and Emily St Denny (2016) “The ‘Scottish approach’ to policy and policymaking: what issues are territorial and what are universal?” Policy and Politics, 44, 3, 333-50

The politics of evidence-based best practice: 4 messages

 

 

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Filed under ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, Scottish politics, Storytelling

How can political actors take into account the limitations of evidence-based policy-making? 5 key points

These notes are for my brief panel talk at the European Parliament-European University Institute ‘Policy Roundtable’: Evidence and Analysis in EU Policy-Making: Concepts, Practice and Governance. As you can see from the programme description, the broader theme is about how EU institutions demonstrate their legitimacy through initiatives such as stakeholder participation and evidence-based policymaking (EBPM). So, part of my talk is about what happens when EBPM does not exist.

The post is a slightly modified version of my (recorded) talk for Open Society Foundations (New York) but different audiences make sense of these same basic points in very different ways.

  1. Recognise that the phrase ‘evidence-based policy-making’ means everything and nothing

The main limitation to ‘evidence-based policy-making’ is that no-one really knows what it is or what the phrase means. So, each actor makes sense of EBPM in different ways and you can tell a lot about each actor by the way in which they answer these questions:

  • Should you use restrictive criteria to determine what counts as ‘evidence’? Some actors equate evidence with scientific evidence and adhere to specific criteria – such as evidence-based medicine’s hierarchy of evidence – to determine what is scientific. Others have more respect for expertise, professional experience, and stakeholder and service user feedback as sources of evidence.
  • Which metaphor, evidence based or informed is best? ‘Evidence based’ is often rejected by experienced policy participants as unrealistic, preferring ‘informed’ to reflect pragmatism about mixing evidence and political calculations.
  • How far do you go to pursue EBPM? It is unrealistic to treat ‘policy’ as a one-off statement of intent by a single authoritative actor. Instead, it is made and delivered by many actors in a continuous policymaking process within a complicated policy environment (outlined in point 3). This is relevant to EU institutions with limited resources: the Commission often makes key decisions but relies on Member States to make and deliver, and the Parliament may only have the ability to monitor ‘key decisions’. It is also relevant to stakeholders trying to ensure the use of evidence throughout the process, from supranational to local action.
  • Which actors count as policymakers? Policymaking is done by ‘policymakers’, but many are unelected and the division between policymaker/ influencer is often unclear. The study of policymaking involves identifying networks of decision-making by elected and unelected policymakers and their stakeholders, while the actual practice is about deciding where to draw the line between influence and action.
  1. Respond to ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ thought.

Comprehensive rationality’ describes the absence of ambiguity and uncertainty when policymakers know what problem they want to solve and how to solve it, partly because they can gather and understand all information required to measure the problem and determine the effectiveness of solutions.

Instead, we talk of ‘bounded rationality’ and how policymakers deal with it. They employ two kinds of shortcut: ‘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 familiarity, make decisions quickly.

I say ‘irrational’ provocatively, to raise a key strategic question: do you criticise emotional policymaking (describing it as ‘policy based evidence’) and try somehow to minimise it, adapt pragmatically to it, or see ‘fast thinking’ more positively in terms of ‘fast and frugal heuristics’? Regardless, policymakers will think that their heuristics make sense to them, and it can be counterproductive to simply criticise their alleged irrationality.

  1. Think about how to engage in complex systems or policy environments.

Policy cycle’ describes the idea that there is a core group of policymakers at the ‘centre’, making policy from the ‘top down’, and pursuing their goals in a series of clearly defined and well-ordered stages, such as: agenda setting, policy formulation, legitimation, implementation, and evaluation. In this context, one might identify how to influence a singular point of central government decision.

However, a cycle model does not describe policymaking well. Instead, we tend to identify the role of less ordered and more unpredictable complex systems, or policy environments containing:

  • A wide range of actors (individuals and organisations) influencing policy at many levels of government. Scientists and practitioners are competing with many actors to present evidence in a particular way to secure a policymaker audience.
  • A proliferation of rules and norms maintained by different levels or types of government. Support for particular ‘evidence based’ solutions varies according to which organisation takes the lead and how it understands the problem.
  • Important relationships (‘networks’) between policymakers and powerful actors. Some networks are close-knit and difficult to access because bureaucracies have operating procedures that favour particular sources of evidence and some participants over others, and there is a language – indicating what ways of thinking are in good ‘currency’ – that takes time to learn.
  • A tendency for certain ‘core beliefs’ or ‘paradigms’ to dominate discussion. Well-established beliefs provide the context for policymaking: new evidence on the effectiveness of a policy solution has to be accompanied by a shift of attention and successful persuasion.
  • Policy conditions and events that can reinforce stability or prompt policymaker attention to lurch at short notice. In some cases, social or economic ‘crises’ can prompt lurches of attention from one issue to another, and some forms of evidence can be used to encourage that shift, but major policy change is rare.

For stakeholders, an effective engagement strategy is not straightforward: it takes time to know ‘where the action is’, how and where to engage with policymakers, and with whom to form coalitions. For the Commission, it is difficult to know what will happen to policy after it is made (although we know the end point will not resemble the starting point). For the Parliament, it is difficult even to know where to look.

  1. Recognise that EBPM is only one of many legitimate ‘good governance’ principles.

There are several principles of ‘good’ policymaking and only one is EBPM. Others relate to the value of pragmatism and consensus building, combining science advice with public values, improving policy delivery by generating ‘ownership’ of policy among key stakeholders, and sharing responsibility with elected national and local policymakers.

Our choice of which principle and forms of evidence to privilege are inextricably linked. For example, some forms of evidence gathering seem to require uniform models and limited local or stakeholder discretion to modify policy delivery. The classic example is a programme whose value is established using randomised control trials (RCTs). Others begin with local discretion, seeking evidence from stakeholders, professional groups, service user and local practitioner experience. This principle seems to rule out the use of RCTs, at least as a source of a uniform model to be rolled out and evaluated. Of course, one can try to pursue both approaches and a compromise between them, but the outcome may not satisfy advocates of either approach to EBPM or help produce the evidence that they favour.

  1. Decide how far you’ll go to achieve EBPM.

These insights should prompt us to see how far we are willing, and should, go to promote the use of certain forms of evidence in policymaking

  • If policymakers and the public are emotional decision-makers, should we seek to manipulate their thought processes by using simple stories with heroes, villains, and clear but rather simplistic morals?
  • If policymaking systems are so complex, should stakeholders devote huge amounts of resources to make sure they’re effective at each stage?
  • Should proponents of scientific evidence go to great lengths to make sure that EBPM is based on a hierarch of evidence? There is a live debate on science advice to government on the extent to which scientists should be more than ‘honest brokers’.
  • Should policymakers try to direct the use of evidence in policy as well as policy itself?

Where we go from there is up to you

The value of policy theory to this topic is to help us reject simplistic models of EBPM and think through the implications of more sophisticated and complicated processes. It does not provide a blueprint for action (how could it?), but instead a series of questions that you should answer when you seek to use evidence to get what you want. They are political choices based on value judgements, not issues that can be resolved by producing more evidence.

 

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Evidence Based Policy Making: 5 things you need to know and do

These are some opening remarks for my talk on EBPM at Open Society Foundations (New York), 24th October 2016. The OSF recorded the talk, so you can listen below, externally, or by right clicking and saving. Please note that it was a lunchtime talk, so the background noises are plates and glasses.

Evidence based policy making’ is a good political slogan, but not a good description of the policy process. If you expect to see it, you will be disappointed. If you seek more thoughtful ways to understand and act within political systems, you need to understand five key points then decide how to respond.

  1. Decide what it means.

EBPM looks like a valence issue in which most of us agree that policy and policymaking should be ‘evidence based’ (perhaps like ‘evidence based medicine’). Yet, valence issues only command broad agreement on vague proposals. By defining each term we highlight ambiguity and the need to make political choices to make sense of key terms:

  • Should you use restrictive criteria to determine what counts as ‘evidence’ and scientific evidence?
  • Which metaphor, evidence based or informed, describes how pragmatic you will be?
  • The unclear meaning of ‘policy’ prompts you to consider how far you’d go to pursue EBPM, from a one-off statement of intent by a key actor, to delivery by many actors, to the sense of continuous policymaking requiring us to be always engaged.
  • Policymaking is done by policymakers, but many are unelected and the division between policy maker/ influencer is often unclear. So, should you seek to influence policy by influencing influencers?
  1. Respond to ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ thought.

Comprehensive rationality’ describes the absence of ambiguity and uncertainty when policymakers know what problem they want to solve and how to solve it, partly because they can gather and understand all information required to measure the problem and determine the effectiveness of solutions.

Instead, we talk of ‘bounded rationality’ and how policymakers deal with it. They employ two kinds of shortcut: ‘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 familiarity, make decisions quickly.

I say ‘irrational’ provocatively, to raise a key strategic question: do you criticise emotional policymaking (describing it as ‘policy based evidence’) and try somehow to minimise it, adapt pragmatically to it, or see ‘fast thinking’ more positively in terms of ‘fast and frugal heuristics’? Regardless, policymakers will think that their heuristics make sense to them, and it can be counterproductive to simply criticise their alleged irrationality.

  1. Think about how to engage in complex systems or policy environments.

Policy cycle’ describes the idea that there is a core group of policymakers at the ‘centre’, making policy from the ‘top down’, and pursuing their goals in a series of clearly defined and well-ordered stages, such as: agenda setting, policy formulation, legitimation, implementation, and evaluation. In this context, one might identify how to influence a singular point of central government decision.

However, a cycle model does not describe policymaking well. Instead, we tend to identify the role of less ordered and more unpredictable complex systems, or policy environments containing:

  • A wide range of actors (individuals and organisations) influencing policy at many levels of government. Scientists and practitioners are competing with many actors to present evidence in a particular way to secure a policymaker audience.
  • A proliferation of rules and norms maintained by different levels or types of government. Support for particular ‘evidence based’ solutions varies according to which organisation takes the lead and how it understands the problem.
  • Important relationships (‘networks’) between policymakers and powerful actors. Some networks are close-knit and difficult to access because bureaucracies have operating procedures that favour particular sources of evidence and some participants over others, and there is a language – indicating what ways of thinking are in good ‘currency’ – that takes time to learn.
  • A tendency for certain ‘core beliefs’ or ‘paradigms’ to dominate discussion. Well-established beliefs provide the context for policymaking: new evidence on the effectiveness of a policy solution has to be accompanied by a shift of attention and successful persuasion.
  • Policy conditions and events that can reinforce stability or prompt policymaker attention to lurch at short notice. In some cases, social or economic ‘crises’ can prompt lurches of attention from one issue to another, and some forms of evidence can be used to encourage that shift, but major policy change is rare.

These factors suggest that an effective engagement strategy is not straightforward: our instinct may be to influence elected policymakers at the ‘centre’ making authoritative choices, but the ‘return on investment’ is not clear. So, you need to decide how and where to engage, but it takes time to know ‘where the action is’ and with whom to form coalitions.

  1. Recognise that EBPM is only one of many legitimate ‘good governance’ principles.

There are several principles of ‘good’ policymaking and only one is EBPM. Others relate to the value of pragmatism and consensus building, combining science advice with public values, improving policy delivery by generating ‘ownership’ of policy among key stakeholders, and sharing responsibility with elected local policymakers.

Our choice of which principle and forms of evidence to privilege are inextricably linked. For example, some forms of evidence gathering seem to require uniform models and limited local or stakeholder discretion to modify policy delivery. The classic example is a programme whose value is established using randomised control trials (RCTs). Others begin with local discretion, seeking evidence from service user and local practitioner experience. This principle seems to rule out the use of RCTs. Of course, one can try to pursue both approaches and a compromise between them, but the outcome may not satisfy advocates of either approach or help produce the evidence that they favour.

  1. Decide how far you’ll go to achieve EBPM.

These insights should prompt us to see how far we are willing, and should, go to promote the use of certain forms of evidence in policymaking. For example, if policymakers and the public are emotional decision-makers, should we seek to manipulate their thought processes by using simple stories with heroes, villains, and clear but rather simplistic morals? If policymaking systems are so complex, should we devote huge amounts of resources to make sure we’re effective? Kathryn Oliver and I also explore the implications for proponents of scientific evidence, and there is a live debate on science advice to government on the extent to which scientists should be more than ‘honest brokers’.

Where we go from there is up to you

The value of policy theory to this topic is to help us reject simplistic models of EBPM and think through the implications of more sophisticated and complicated processes. It does not provide a blueprint for action (how could it?), but instead a series of questions that you should answer when you seek to use evidence to get what you want. They are political choices based on value judgements, not issues that can be resolved by producing more evidence.

ebpm pic

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Realistic ‘realist’ reviews: why do you need them and what might they look like?

This discussion is based on my impressions so far of realist reviews and the potential for policy studies to play a role in their effectiveness. The objectives section formed one part of a recent team bid for external funding (so, I acknowledge the influence of colleagues on this discussion, but not enough to blame them personally). We didn’t get the funding, but at least I got a lengthy blog post and a dozen hits out of it.

I like the idea of a ‘realistic’ review of evidence to inform policy, alongside a promising uptake in the use of ‘realist review’. The latter doesn’t mean realistic: it refers to a specific method or approach – realist evaluation, realist synthesis.

The agenda of the realist review already takes us along a useful path towards policy relevance, driven partly by the idea that many policy and practice ‘interventions’ are too complex to be subject to meaningful ‘systematic review’.

The latter’s aim – which we should be careful not to caricature – may be to identify something as close as possible to a general law: if you do X, the result will generally be Y, and you can be reasonably sure because the studies (such as randomised control trials) meet the ‘gold standard’ of research.

The former’s aim is to focus extensively on the context in which interventions take place: if you do X, the result will be Y under these conditions. So, for example, you identify the outcome that you want, the mechanism that causes it, and the context in which the mechanism causes the outcome. Maybe you’ll even include a few more studies, not meeting the ‘gold standard’, if they meet other criteria of high quality research (I declare that I am a qualitative researcher, so you call tell who I’m rooting for).

Realist reviews come increasingly with guide books and discussions on how to do them systematically. However, my impression is that when people do them, they find that there is an art to applying discretion to identify what exactly is going on. It is often difficult to identify or describe the mechanism fully (often because source reports are not clear on that point), say for sure it caused the outcome even in particular circumstances, and separate the mechanism from the context.

I italicised the last point because it is super-important. I think that it is often difficult to separate mechanism from context because (a) the context is often associated with a particular country’s political system and governing arrangements, and (b) it might be better to treat governing context as another mechanism in a notional chain of causality.

In other words, my impression is that realist reviews focus on the mechanism at the point of delivery; the last link in the chain in which the delivery of an intervention causes an outcome. It may be wise to also identify the governance mechanism that causes the final mechanism to work.

Why would you complicate an already complicated review?

I aim to complicate things then simplify them heroically at the end.

Here are five objectives that I maybe think we should pursue in an evidence review for policymakers (I can’t say for sure until we all agree on the principles of science advice):

  1. Focus on ways to turn evidence into feasible political action, identifying a clear set of policy conditions and mechanisms necessary to produce intended outcomes.
  2. Produce a manageable number of simple lessons and heuristics for policymakers, practitioners, and communities.
  3. Review a wider range of evidence sources than in traditional systematic reviews, to recognise the potential trade-offs between measures of high quality and high impact evidence.
  4. Identify a complex policymaking environment in which there is a need to connect the disparate evidence on each part of the ‘causal chain’.
  5. Recognise the need to understand individual countries and their political systems in depth, to know how the same evidence will be interpreted and used very differently by actors in different contexts.

Objective 1: evidence into action by addressing the politics of evidence-based policymaking

There is no shortage of scientific evidence of policy problems. Yet, we lack a way to use evidence to produce politically feasible action. The ‘politics of evidence-based policymaking’ produces scientists frustrated with the gap between their evidence and a proportionate policy response, and politicians frustrated that evidence is not available in a usable form when they pay attention to a problem and need to solve it quickly. The most common responses in key fields, such as environmental and health studies, do not solve this problem. The literature on ‘barriers’ between evidence and policy recommend initiatives such as: clearer scientific messages, knowledge brokerage and academic-practitioner workshops, timely engagement in politics, scientific training for politicians, and participation to combine evidence and community engagement.

This literature makes limited reference to policy theory and has two limitations. First, studies focus on reducing empirical uncertainty, not ‘framing’ issues to reduce ambiguity. Too many scientific publications go unread in the absence of a process of persuasion to influence policymaker demand for that information (particularly when more politically relevant and paywall-free evidence is available elsewhere). Second, few studies appreciate the multi-level nature of political systems or understand the strategies actors use to influence policy. This involves experience and cultural awareness to help learn: where key decisions are made, including in networks between policymakers and influential actors; the ‘rules of the game’ of networks; how to form coalitions with key actors; and, that these processes unfold over years or decades.

The solution is to produce knowledge that will be used by policymakers, community leaders, and ‘street level’ actors. It requires a (23%) shift in focus from the quality of scientific evidence to (a) who is involved in policymaking and the extent to which there is a ‘delivery chain’ from national to local, and (b) how actors demand, interpret, and use evidence to make decisions. For example, simple qualitative stories with a clear moral may be more effective than highly sophisticated decision-making models or quantitative evidence presented without enough translation.

Objective 2: produce simple lessons and heuristics

We know that the world is too complex to fully comprehend, yet people need to act despite uncertainty. They rely on ‘rational’ methods to gather evidence from sources they trust, and ‘irrational’ means to draw on gut feeling, emotion, and beliefs as short cuts to action (or system 1 and 2 thinking). Scientific evidence can help reduce some uncertainty, but not tell people how to behave. Scientific information strategies can be ineffective, by expecting audiences to appreciate the detail and scale of evidence, understand the methods used to gather it, and possess the skills to interpret and act on it. The unintended consequence is that key actors fall back on familiar heuristics and pay minimal attention to inaccessible scientific information. The solution is to tailor evidence reviews to audiences: examining their practices and ways of thinking; identifying the heuristics they use; and, describing simple lessons and new heuristics and practices.

Objective 3: produce a pragmatic review of the evidence

To review a wider range of evidence sources than in traditional systematic reviews is to recognise the trade-offs between measures of high quality (based on a hierarchy of methods and journal quality) and high impact (based on familiarity and availability). If scientists reject and refuse to analyse evidence that policymakers routinely take more seriously (such as the ‘grey’ literature), they have little influence on key parts of policy analysis. Instead, provide a framework that recognises complexity but produces research that is manageable at scale and translatable into key messages:

  • Context. Identify the role of factors described routinely by policy theories as the key parts of policy environments: the actors involved in multiple policymaking venues at many levels of government; the role of informal and formal rules of each venue; networks between policymakers and influential actors; socio-economic conditions; and, the ‘paradigms’ or ways of thinking that underpin the consideration of policy problems and solutions.
  • Mechanisms. Focus on the connection between three mechanisms: the cause of outcomes at the point of policy delivery (intervention); the cause of ‘community’ or individual ‘ownership’ of effective interventions; and, the governance arrangements that support high levels of community ownership and the effective delivery of the most effective interventions. These connections are not linear. For example, community ownership and effective interventions may develop more usefully from the ‘bottom up’, scientists may convince national but not local policymakers of the value of interventions (or vice versa), or political support for long term strategies may only be temporary or conditional on short term measures of success.
  • Outcomes. Identify key indicators of good policy outcomes in partnership with the people you need to make policy work. Work with those audiences to identify a small number of specific positive outcomes, and synthesise the best available evidence to explain which mechanisms produce those outcomes under the conditions associated with your region of study.

This narrow focus is crucial to the development of a research question, limiting analysis to the most relevant studies to produce a rigorous review in a challenging timeframe. Then, the idea from realist reviews is that you ‘test’ your hypotheses and clarify the theories that underpin this analysis. This should involve a test for political as well as technical feasibility: speak regularly with key actors i to gauge the likelihood that the mechanisms you recommend will be acted upon, and the extent to which the context of policy delivery is stable and predictable and if mechanism will work consistently under those conditions.

Objective 4: identify key links in the ‘causal chain’ via interdisciplinary study

We all talk about combining perspectives from multiple disciplines but I totally mean it, especially if it boosts the role of political scientists who can’t predict elections. For example, health or environmental scientists can identify the most effective interventions to produce good health or environmental outcomes, but not how to work with and influence key people. Policy scholars can identify how the policy process works and how to maximise the use of scientific evidence within it. Social science scholars can identify mechanisms to encourage community participation and the ownership of policies. Anthropologists can provide insights on the particular cultural practices and beliefs underpinning the ways in which people understand and act according to scientific evidence.

Perhaps more importantly, interdisciplinarity provides political cover: we got the best minds in many disciplines and locked them in a room until they produced an answer.

We need this cover for something I’ll call ‘informed extrapolation’ and justify with reference to pragmatism: if we do not provide well-informed analyses of the links between each mechanism, other less-informed actors will fill the gap without appreciating key aspects of causality. For example, if we identify a mechanism for the delivery of successful interventions – e.g. high levels of understanding and implementation of key procedures – there is still uncertainty: do these mechanisms develop organically through ‘bottom up’ collaboration or can they be introduced quickly from the ‘top’ to address an urgent issue? A simple heuristic for central governments could be to introduce training immediately or to resist the temptation for a quick fix.

Relatively-informed analysis, to recommend one of those choices, may only be used if we can back it up with interdisciplinary weight and produce recommendations that are unequivocal (although, again, other approaches are available).

Objective 5: focus intensively on one region, and one key issue, not ‘one size fits all’

We need to understand individual countries or regions – their political systems, communities, and cultural practices – and specific issues in depth, to know how abstract mechanisms work in concrete contexts, and how the same evidence will be interpreted and used differently by actors in those contexts. We need to avoid politically insensitive approaches based on the assumption that a policy that works in countries like (say) the UK will work in countries that are not (say) the UK, and/ or that actors in each country will understand policy problems in the same way.

But why?

It all looks incredibly complicated, doesn’t it? There’s no time to do all that, is there? It will end up as a bit of a too-rushed jumble of high-and-low quality evidence and advice, won’t it?

My argument is that these problems are actually virtues because they provide more insight into how busy policymakers will gather and use evidence. Most policymakers will not know how to do a systematic review or understand why you are so attached to them. Maybe you’ll impress them enough to get them to trust your evidence, but have you put yourself into a position to know what they’ll do with it? Have you thought about the connection between the evidence you’ve gathered, what people need to do, who needs to do it, and who you need to speak to about getting them to do it? Maybe you don’t have to, if you want to be no more than a ‘neutral scientist’ or ‘honest broker’ – but you do if you want to give science advice to policymakers that policymakers can use.

 

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The Politics of Evidence-based Policymaking in 2500 words

Here is a 2500 word draft of an entry to the Oxford Research Encyclopaedia (public administration and policy) on EBPM. It brings together some thoughts in previous posts and articles

Evidence-based Policymaking (EBPM) has become one of many valence terms that seem difficult to oppose: who would not want policy to be evidence based? It appears to  be the most recent incarnation of a focus on ‘rational’ policymaking, in which we could ask the same question in a more classic way: who would not want policymaking to be based on reason and collecting all of the facts necessary to make good decisions?

Yet, as we know from classic discussions, there are three main issues with such an optimistic starting point. The first is definitional: valence terms only seem so appealing because they are vague. When we define key terms, and produce one definition at the expense of others, we see differences of approach and unresolved issues. The second is descriptive: ‘rational’ policymaking does not exist in the real world. Instead, we treat ‘comprehensive’ or ‘synoptic’ rationality as an ideal-type, to help us think about the consequences of ‘bounded rationality’ (Simon, 1976). Most contemporary policy theories have bounded rationality as a key starting point for explanation (Cairney and Heikkila, 2014). The third is prescriptive. Like EBPM, comprehensive rationality seems – initially – to be unequivocally good. Yet, when we identify its necessary conditions, or what we would have to do to secure this aim, we begin to question EBPM and comprehensive rationality as an ideal scenario.

What is ‘evidence-based policymaking?’ is a lot like ‘what is policy?’ but more so!

Trying to define EBPM is like magnifying the problem of defining policy. As the entries in this encyclopaedia suggest, it is difficult to say what policy is and measure how much it has changed. I use the working definition, ‘the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes’ (Cairney, 2012: 5) not to provide something definitive, but to raise important qualifications, including: there is a difference between what people say they will do, what they actually do, and the outcome; and, policymaking is also about the power not to do something.

So, the idea of a ‘sum total’ of policy sounds intuitively appealing, but masks the difficulty of identifying the many policy instruments that make up ‘policy’ (and the absence of others), including: the level of spending; the use of economic incentives/ penalties; regulations and laws; the use of voluntary agreements and codes of conduct; the provision of public services; education campaigns; funding for scientific studies or advocacy; organisational change; and, the levels of resources/ methods dedicated to policy implementation and evaluation (2012: 26). In that context, we are trying to capture a process in which actors make and deliver ‘policy’ continuously, not identify a set-piece event providing a single opportunity to use a piece of scientific evidence to prompt a policymaker response.

Similarly, for the sake of simplicity, we refer to ‘policymakers’ but in the knowledge that it leads to further qualifications and distinctions, such as: (1) between elected and unelected participants, since people such as civil servants also make important decisions; and (2) between people and organisations, with the latter used as a shorthand to refer to a group of people making decisions collectively and subject to rules of collective engagement (see ‘institutions’). There are blurry dividing lines between the people who make and influence policy and decisions are made by a collection of people with formal responsibility and informal influence (see ‘networks’). Consequently, we need to make clear what we mean by ‘policymakers’ when we identify how they use evidence.

A reference to EBPM provides two further definitional problems (Cairney, 2016: 3-4). The first is to define evidence beyond the vague idea of an argument backed by information. Advocates of EBPM are often talking about scientific evidence which describes information produced in a particular way. Some describe ‘scientific’ broadly, to refer to information gathered systematically using recognised methods, while others refer to a specific hierarchy of methods. The latter has an important reference point – evidence based medicine (EBM) – in which the aim is to generate the best evidence of the best interventions and exhort clinicians to use it. At the top of the methodological hierarchy are randomized control trials (RCTs) to determine the evidence, and the systematic review of RCTs to demonstrate the replicated success of interventions in multiple contexts, published in the top scientific journals (Oliver et al, 2014a; 2014b).

This reference to EBM is crucial in two main ways. First, it highlights a basic difference in attitude between the scientists proposing a hierarchy and the policymakers using a wider range of sources from a far less exclusive list of publications: ‘The tools and programs of evidence-based medicine … are of little relevance to civil servants trying to incorporate evidence in policy advice’ (Lomas and Brown 2009: 906).  Instead, their focus is on finding as much information as possible in a short space of time – including from the ‘grey’ or unpublished/non-peer reviewed literature, and incorporating evidence on factors such as public opinion – to generate policy analysis and make policy quickly. Therefore, second, EBM provides an ideal that is difficult to match in politics, proposing: “that policymakers adhere to the same hierarchy of scientific evidence; that ‘the evidence’ has a direct effect on policy and practice; and that the scientific profession, which identifies problems, is in the best place to identify the most appropriate solutions, based on scientific and professionally driven criteria” (Cairney, 2016: 52; Stoker 2010: 53).

These differences are summed up in the metaphor ‘evidence-based’ which, for proponents of EBM suggests that scientific evidence comes first and acts as the primary reference point for a decision: how do we translate this evidence of a problem into a proportionate response, or how do we make sure that the evidence of an intervention’s success is reflected in policy? The more pragmatic phrase ‘evidence-informed’ sums up a more rounded view of scientific evidence, in which policymakers know that they have to take into account a wider range of factors (Nutley et al, 2007).

Overall, the phrases ‘evidence-based policy’ and ‘evidence-based policymaking’ are less clear than ‘policy’. This problem puts an onus on advocates of EBPM to state what they mean, and to clarify if they are referring to an ideal-type to aid description of the real world, or advocating a process that, to all intents and purposes, would be devoid of politics (see below). The latter tends to accompany often fruitless discussions about ‘policy based evidence’, which seems to describe a range of mistakes by policymakers – including ignoring evidence, using the wrong kinds, ‘cherry picking’ evidence to suit their agendas, and/ or producing a disproportionate response to evidence – without describing a realistic standard to which to hold them.

For example, Haskins and Margolis (2015) provide a pie chart of ‘factors that influence legislation’ in the US, to suggest that research contributes 1% to a final decision compared to, for example, ‘the public’ (16%), the ‘administration’ (11%), political parties (8%) and the budget (8%). Theirs is a ‘whimsical’ exercise to lampoon the lack of EBPM in government (compare with Prewitt et al’s 2012 account built more on social science studies), but it sums up a sense in some scientific circles about their frustrations with the inability of the policymaking world to keep up with science.

Indeed, there is an extensive literature in health science (Oliver, 2014a; 2014b), emulated largely in environmental studies (Cairney, 2016: 85; Cairney et al, 2016), which bemoans the ‘barriers’ between evidence and policy. Some identify problems with the supply of evidence, recommending the need to simplify reports and key messages. Others note the difficulties in providing timely evidence in a chaotic-looking process in which the demand for information is unpredictable and fleeting. A final main category relates to a sense of different ‘cultures’ in science and policymaking which can be addressed in academic-practitioner workshops (to learn about each other’s perspectives) and more scientific training for policymakers. The latter recommendation is often based on practitioner experiences and a superficial analysis of policy studies (Oliver et al, 2014b; Embrett and Randall’s, 2014).

EBPM as a misleading description

Consequently, such analysis tends to introduce reference points that policy scholars would describe as ideal-types. Many accounts refer to the notion of a policy cycle, in which there is a core group of policymakers at the ‘centre’, making policy from the ‘top down’, breaking down their task into clearly defined and well-ordered stages (Cairney, 2016: 16-18). The hope may be that scientists can help policymakers make good decisions by getting them as close as possible to ‘comprehensive rationality’ in which they have the best information available to inform all options and consequences. In that context, policy studies provides two key insights (2016; Cairney et al, 2016).

  1. The role of multi-level policymaking environments, not cycles

Policymaking takes place in less ordered and predictable policy environments, exhibiting:

  • a wide range of actors (individuals and organisations) influencing policy in many levels and types of government
  • a proliferation of rules and norms followed in different venues
  • close relationships (‘networks’) between policymakers and powerful actors
  • a tendency for certain beliefs or ‘paradigms’ to dominate discussion
  • policy conditions and events that can prompt policymaker attention to lurch at short notice.

A focus on this bigger picture shifts our attention from the use of scientific evidence by an elite group of elected policymakers at the ‘top’ to its use by a wide range of influential actors in a multilevel policy process. It shows scientists that they are competing with many actors to present evidence in a particular way to secure a policymaker audience. Support for particular solutions varies according to which organisation takes the lead and how it understands the problem. Some networks are close-knit and difficult to access because bureaucracies have operating procedures that favour particular sources of evidence and some participants over others, and there is a language – indicating what ways of thinking are in good ‘currency’ – that takes time to learn. Well-established beliefs provide the context for policymaking: new evidence on the effectiveness of a policy solution has to be accompanied by a shift of attention and successful persuasion. In some cases, social or economic ‘crises’ can prompt lurches of attention from one issue to another, and some forms of evidence can be used to encourage that shift – but major policy change is rare.

  1. Policymakers use two ‘shortcuts’ to deal with bounded rationality and make decisions

Policymakers deal with ‘bounded rationality’ by employing two kinds of shortcut: ‘rational’, by pursuing clear goals and prioritizing certain kinds and sources of information, and ‘irrational’, by drawing on emotions, gut feelings, beliefs, habits, and familiar reference points to make decisions quickly. Consequently, the focus of policy theories is on the links between evidence, persuasion, and framing.

Framing refers to the ways in which we understand, portray, and categorise issues. Problems are multi-faceted, but bounded rationality limits the attention of policymakers, and actors compete to highlight one image at the expense of others. The outcome of this process determines who is involved (for example, portraying an issue as technical limits involvement to experts), and responsible for policy, how much attention they pay, and what kind of solution they favour. Scientific evidence plays a part in this process, but we should not exaggerate the ability of scientists to win the day with evidence. Rather, policy theories signal the strategies that actors use to increase demand for their evidence:

  • to combine facts with emotional appeals, to prompt lurches of policymaker attention from one policy image to another (True, Jones, and Baumgartner 2007)
  • to tell simple stories which are easy to understand, help manipulate people’s biases, apportion praise and blame, and highlight the moral and political value of solutions (Jones, Shanahan, and McBeth 2014)
  • to interpret new evidence through the lens of the pre-existing beliefs of actors within coalitions, some of which dominate policy networks (Weible, Heikkila, and Sabatier 2012)
  • to produce a policy solution that is feasible and exploit a time when policymakers have the opportunity to adopt it (Kingdon 1984).

Further, the impact of a framing strategy may not be immediate, even if it appears to be successful. Scientific evidence may prompt a lurch of attention to a policy problem, prompting a shift of views in one venue or the new involvement of actors from other venues. However, it can take years to produce support for an ‘evidence-based’ policy solution, built on its technical and political feasibility (will it work as intended, and do policymakers have the motive and opportunity to select it?).

EBPM as a problematic prescription

A pragmatic solution to the policy process would involve: identifying the key venues in which the ‘action’ takes place; learning the ‘rules of the game’ within key networks and institutions; developing framing and persuasion techniques; forming coalitions with allies; and engaging for the long term (Cairney, 2016: 124; Weible et al, 2012: 9-15). The alternative is to seek reforms to make EBPM in practice more like the EBM ideal.

Yet, EBM is defendable because the actors involved agree to make primary reference to scientific evidence and be guided by what works (combined with their clinical expertise and judgement). In politics, there are other – and generally more defendable – principles of ‘good’ policymaking (Cairney, 2016: 125-6). They include the need to legitimise policy: to be accountable to the public in free and fair elections, consult far and wide to generate evidence from multiple perspectives, and negotiate policy across political parties and multiple venues with a legitimate role in policymaking. In that context, we may want scientific evidence to play a major role in policy and policymaking, but pause to reflect on how far we would go to secure a primary role for unelected experts and evidence that few can understand.

Conclusion: the inescapable and desirable politics of evidence-informed policymaking

Many contemporary discussions of policymaking begin with the naïve belief in the possibility and desirability of an evidence-based policy process free from the pathologies of politics. The buzz phrase for any complaint about politicians not living up to this ideal is ‘policy based evidence’: biased politicians decide first what they want to do, then cherry pick any evidence that backs up their case. Yet, without additional thought, they put in its place a technocratic process in which unelected experts are in charge, deciding on the best evidence of a problem and its best solution.

In other words, new discussions of EBPM raise old discussions of rationality that have occupied policy scholars for many decades. The difference since the days of Simon and Lindblom (1959) is that we now have the scientific technology and methods to gather information in ways beyond the dreams of our predecessors. Yet, such advances in technology and knowledge have only increased our ability to reduce but not eradicate uncertainty about the details of a problem. They do not remove ambiguity, which describes the ways in which people understand problems in the first place, then seek information to help them understand them further and seek to solve them. Nor do they reduce the need to meet important principles in politics, such as to sell or justify policies to the public (to respond to democratic elections) and address the fact that there are many venues of policymaking at multiple levels (partly to uphold a principled commitment, in many political system, to devolve or share power).  Policy theories do not tell us what to do about these limits to EBPM, but they help us to separate pragmatism from often-misplaced idealism.

References

Cairney, Paul (2012) Understanding Public Policy (Basingstoke: Palgrave)

Cairney, Paul (2016) The Politics of Evidence-based Policy Making (Basingstoke: Palgrave)

Cairney, Paul and Heikkila, Tanya (2014) ‘A Comparison of Theories of the Policy Process’ in Sabatier, P. and Weible, C. (eds.) Theories of the Policy Process 3rd edition (Chicago: Westview Press)

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, DOI:10.1111/puar.12555

Embrett, M. and Randall, G. (2014) ‘Social determinants of health and health equity policy research: Exploring the use, misuse, and nonuse of policy analysis theory’, Social Science and Medicine, 108, 147-55

Haskins, Ron and Margolis, Greg (2015) Show Me the Evidence: Obama’s fight for rigor and results in social policy (Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press)

Kingdon, J. (1984) Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies 1st ed. (New York, NY: Harper Collins)

Lindblom, C. (1959) ‘The Science of Muddling Through’, Public Administration Review, 19: 79–88

Lomas J. and Brown A. (2009) ‘Research and advice giving: a functional view of evidence-informed policy advice in a Canadian ministry of health’, Milbank Quarterly, 87, 4, 903–926

McBeth, M., Jones, M. and Shanahan, E. (2014) ‘The Narrative Policy Framework’ in Sabatier, P. and Weible, C. (eds.) Theories of the Policy Process 3rd edition (Chicago: Westview Press)

Nutley, S., Walter, I. and Davies, H. (2007) Using evidence: how research can inform public services (Bristol: The Policy Press)

Oliver, K., Innvar, S., Lorenc, T., Woodman, J. and Thomas, J. (2014a) ‘A systematic review of barriers to and facilitators of the use of evidence by policymakers’ BMC health services research, 14 (1), 2. http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6963/14/2

Oliver, K., Lorenc, T., & Innvær, S. (2014b) ‘New directions in evidence-based policy research: a critical analysis of the literature’, Health Research Policy and Systems, 12, 34 http://www.biomedcentral.com/content/pdf/1478-4505-12-34.pdf

Kenneth Prewitt, Thomas A. Schwandt, and Miron L. Straf, (Editors) (2012) Using Science as Evidence in Public Policy http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13460

Simon, H. (1976) Administrative Behavior, 3rd ed. (London: Macmillan)

Stoker, G. (2010) ‘Translating experiments into policy’, The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 628, 1, 47-58

True, J. L., Jones, B. D. and Baumgartner, F. R. (2007) Punctuated Equilibrium Theory’ in P. Sabatier (ed.) Theories of the Policy Process, 2nd ed (Cambridge, MA: Westview Press)

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