This post introduces a series of related talks on ‘the politics of evidence-based policymaking’ (EBPM) that I’m giving as part of larger series of talks during this ANZOG-funded/organised trip.
The EBPM talks begin with a discussion of the same three points: what counts as evidence, why we must ignore most of it (and how), and the policy process in which policymakers use some of it. However, the framing of these points, and the ways in which we discuss the implications, varies markedly by audience. So, in this post, I provide a short discussion of the three points, then show how the audience matters (referring to the city as a shorthand for each talk).
The overall take-home points are highly practical, in the same way that critical thinking has many practical applications (in other words, I’m not offering a map, toolbox, or blueprint):
- If you begin with (a) the question ‘why don’t policymakers use my evidence?’ I like to think you will end with (b) the question ‘why did I ever think they would?’.
- If you begin by taking the latter as (a) a criticism of politics and policymakers, I hope you will end by taking it as (b) a statement of the inevitability of the trade-offs that must accompany political choice.
- We may address these issues by improving the supply and use of evidence. However, it is more important to maintain the legitimacy of the politicians and political systems in which policymakers choose to ignore evidence. Technocracy is no substitute for democracy.
3 ways to describe the use of evidence in policymaking
- Discussions of the use of evidence in policy often begin as a valence issue: who wouldn’t want to use good evidence when making policy?
However, it only remains a valence issue when we refuse to define evidence and justify what counts as good evidence. After that, you soon see the political choices emerge. A reference to evidence is often a shorthand for scientific research evidence, and good often refers to specific research methods (such as randomised control trials). Or, you find people arguing very strongly in the almost-opposite direction, criticising this shorthand as exclusionary and questioning the ability of scientists to justify claims to superior knowledge. Somewhere in the middle, we find that a focus on evidence is a good way to think about the many forms of information or knowledge on which we might make decisions, including: a wider range of research methods and analyses, knowledge from experience, and data relating to the local context with which policy would interact.
So, what begins as a valence issue becomes a gateway to many discussions about how to understand profound political choices regarding: how we make knowledge claims, how to ‘co-produce’ knowledge via dialogue among many groups, and the relationship between choices about evidence and governance.
- It is impossible to pay attention to all policy relevant evidence.
There is far more information about the world than we are able to process. A focus on evidence gaps often gives way to the recognition that we need to find effective ways to ignore most evidence.
There are many ways to describe how individuals combine cognition and emotion to limit their attention enough to make choices, and policy studies (to all intents and purposes) describe equivalent processes – described, for example, as ‘institutions’ or rules – in organisations and systems.
One shortcut between information and choice is to set aims and priorities; to focus evidence gathering on a small number of problems or one way to define a problem, and identify the most reliable or trustworthy sources of evidence (often via evidence ‘synthesis’). Another is to make decisions quickly by relying on emotion, gut instinct, habit, and existing knowledge or familiarity with evidence.
Either way, agenda setting and problem definition are political processes that address uncertainty and ambiguity. We gather evidence to reduce uncertainty, but first we must reduce ambiguity by exercising power to define the problem we seek to solve.
- It is impossible to control the policy process in which people use evidence.
Policy textbooks (well, my textbook at least!) provide a contrast between:
- The model of a ‘policy cycle’ that sums up straightforward policymaking, through a series of stages, over which policymakers have clear control. At each stage, you know where evidence fits in: to help define the problem, generate solutions, and evaluate the results to set the agenda for the next cycle.
- A more complex ‘policy process’, or policymaking environment, of which policymakers have limited knowledge and even less control. In this environment, it is difficult to know with whom engage, the rules of engagement, or the likely impact of evidence.
Overall, policy theories have much to offer people with an interest in evidence-use in policy, but primarily as a way to (a) manage expectations, to (b) produce more realistic strategies and less dispiriting conclusions. It is useful to frame our aim as to analyse the role of evidence within a policy process that (a) we don’t quite understand, rather than (b) we would like to exist.
The events themselves
Below, you will find a short discussion of the variations of audience and topic. I’ll update and reflect on this discussion (in a revised version of this post) after taking part in the events.
Social science and policy studies: knowledge claims, bounded rationality, and policy theory
For Auckland and Wellington A, I’m aiming for an audience containing a high proportion of people with a background in social science and policy studies. I describe the discussion as ‘meta’ because I am talking about how I talk about EBPM to other audiences, then inviting discussion on key parts of that talk, such as how to conceptualise the policy process and present conceptual insights to people who have no intention of deep dives into policy theory.
I often use the phrase ‘I’ve read it, so you don’t have to’ partly as a joke, but also to stress the importance of disciplinary synthesis when we engage in interdisciplinary (and inter-professional) discussion. If so, it is important to discuss how to produce such ‘synthetic’ accounts.
I tend to describe key components of a policymaking environment quickly: many policy makers and influencers spread across many levels and types of government, institutions, networks, socioeconomic factors and events, and ideas. However, each of these terms represents a shorthand to describe a large and diverse literature. For example, I can describe an ‘institution’ in a few sentences, but the study of institutions contains a variety of approaches.
Background post: I know my audience, but does my other audience know I know my audience?
Academic-practitioner discussions: improving the use of research evidence in policy
For Wellington B and Melbourne, the audience is an academic-practitioner mix. We discuss ways in which we can encourage the greater use of research evidence in policy, perhaps via closer collaboration between suppliers and users.
Discussions with scientists: why do policymakers ignore my evidence?
Sydney UNSW focuses more on researchers in scientific fields (often not in social science). I frame the question in a way that often seems central to scientific researcher interest: why do policymakers seem to ignore my evidence, and what can I do about it?
Then, I tend to push back on the idea that the fault lies with politics and policymakers, to encourage researchers to think more about the policy process and how to engage effectively in it. If I’m trying to be annoying, I’ll suggest to a scientific audience that they see themselves as ‘rational’ and politicians as ‘irrational’. However, the more substantive discussion involves comparing (a) ‘how to make an impact’ advice drawn from the personal accounts of experienced individuals, giving advice to individuals, and (b) the sort of advice you might draw from policy theories which focus more on systems.
Background post: What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence?
Early career researchers: the need to build ‘impact’ into career development
Canberra UNSW is more focused on early career researchers. I think this is the most difficult talk because I don’t rely on the same joke about my role: to turn up at the end of research projects to explain why they failed to have a non-academic impact. Instead, my aim is to encourage intelligent discussion about situating the ‘how to’ advice for individual researchers into a wider discussion of policymaking systems.
Similarly, Brisbane A and B are about how to engage with practitioners, and communicate well to non-academic audiences, when most of your work and training is about something else entirely (such as learning about research methods and how to engage with the technical language of research).
What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence? Tips from the ‘how to’ literature from the science community
What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence? Encourage ‘knowledge management for policy’
- A similar talk at LSHTM (powerpoint and audio)
2. European Health Forum Gastein 2018 ‘Policy in Evidence’ (from 6 minutes)