Tag Archives: The politics of evidence

The UK government’s imaginative use of evidence to make policy

This post describes a new article published in British Politics (Open Access).

In retrospect, I think the title was too subtle and clever-clever. I wanted to convey two meanings: imaginative as a euphemism for ridiculous/ often cynical and to argue that a government has to be imaginative with evidence. The latter has two meanings: imaginative (1) in the presentation and framing of evidence-informed agenda, and (2) when facing pressure to go beyond the evidence and envisage policy outcomes.

So I describe two cases in which its evidence-use seems cynical, when:

  1. Declaring complete success in turning around the lives of ‘troubled families’
  2. Exploiting vivid neuroscientific images to support ‘early intervention’

Then I describe more difficult cases in which supportive evidence is not clear:

  1. Family intervention project evaluations are of limited value and only tentatively positive
  2. Successful projects like FNP and Incredible Years have limited applicability or ‘scalability’

As scientists, we can shrug our shoulders about the uncertainty, but elected policymakers in government have to do something. So what do they do?

At this point of the article it will look like I have become an apologist for David Cameron’s government. Instead, I’m trying to demonstrate the value of comparing sympathetic/ unsympathetic interpretations and highlight the policy problem from a policymaker’s perspective:

Cairney 2018 British Politics discussion section

I suggest that they use evidence in a mix of ways to: describe an urgent problem, present an image of success and governing competence, and provide cover for more evidence-informed long term action.

The result is the appearance of top-down ‘muscular’ government and ‘a tendency for policy to change as is implemented, such as when mediated by local authority choices and social workers maintaining a commitment to their professional values when delivering policy’

I conclude by arguing that ‘evidence-based policy’ and ‘policy-based evidence’ are political slogans with minimal academic value. The binary divide between EBP/ PBE distracts us from more useful categories which show us the trade-offs policymakers have to make when faced with the need to act despite uncertainty.

Cairney British Politics 2018 Table 1

As such, it forms part of a far wider body of work …

In both cases, the common theme is that, although (1) the world of top-down central government gets most attention, (2) central governments don’t even know what problem they are trying to solve, far less (3) how to control policymaking and outcomes.

See also:

Early intervention policy, from ‘troubled families’ to ‘named persons’: problems with evidence and framing ‘valence’ issues

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

(found by searching for early intervention)

See also:

Here’s why there is always an expectations gap in prevention policy

Social investment, prevention and early intervention: a ‘window of opportunity’ for new ideas?

(found by searching for prevention)

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Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), POLU9UK, Prevention policy, UK politics and policy

The Politics of Evidence revisited

This is a guest post by Dr Justin Parkhurst, responding to a review of our books by Dr Joshua Newman, and my reply to that review.

I really like that Joshua Newman has done this synthesis of 3 recent books covering aspects of evidence use in policy. Too many book reviews these days just describe the content, so some critical comments are welcome, as is the comparative perspective.

I’m also honoured that my book was included in the shortlist (it is available here, free as an ebook: bit.ly/2gGSn0n for interested readers) and I’d like to follow on from Paul to add some discussion points to the debate here – with replies to both Joshua and Paul (hoping first names are acceptable).

Have we heard all this before?

Firstly, I agree with Paul that saying ‘we’ve heard this all before’ risks speaking about a small community of active researchers who study these issues, and not the wider community. But I’d also add that what we’ve heard before is a starting point to many of these books, not where they end up.

In terms of where we start: I’m sure many of us who work in this field are somewhat frustrated at meetings when we hear people making statements that are well established in the literature. Some examples include:

  • “There can be many types of evidence, not just scientific research…”
  • “In the legal field, ‘evidence’ means something different…”
  • “We need evidence-based policy, not policy-based evidence…”
  • “We need to know ‘what works’ to get evidence into policy…”

Thus, I do think there is still a need to cement the foundations of the field more strongly – in essence, to establish a disciplinary baseline that people weighing in on a subject should be expected to know about before providing additional opinions. One way to help do this is for scholars to continue to lay out the basic starting points in our books – typically in the first chapter or two.

Of course, other specialist fields and disciplines have managed to establish their expertise to a point that individuals with opinions on a subject typically have some awareness that there is a field of study out there which they don’t necessarily know about. This is most obvious in the natural sciences (and perhaps in economics). E.g. most people (current presidents of some large North American countries aside?) are aware that don’t know a lot about engineering, medicine, or quantum physics – so they won’t offer speculative or instinctive opinions about why airplanes stay in the air, how to do bypass surgery, or what was wrong with the ‘Ant-Man’ film. Or when individuals do offer views, they are typically expected to know the basics of the subject.

For the topic of evidence and policy, I often point people to Huw Davies, Isabel Walter, and Sandra Nutley’s book Using Evidence, which is a great introduction to much of this field, as well as Carol Weiss’ insights from the late 70s on the many meanings of research utilisation. I also routinely point people to read The Honest Broker by Roger Pielke Jr. (which I, myself, failed to read before writing my book and, as such, end up repeating many of his points – I’ve apologised to him personally).

So yes, I think there is space for work like ours to continue to establish a baseline, even if some of us know this, because the expertise of the field is not yet widely recognised or established. Yet I think is it not accurate for Joshua to argue we end up repeating what is known, considering our books diverge in key ways after laying out some of the core foundations.

Where do we go from there?

More interesting for this discussion, then, is to reflect on what our various books try to do beyond simply laying out the basics of what we know about evidence use and policy. It is here where I would disagree with Joshua’s point claiming we don’t give a clear picture about the ‘problem’ that ‘evidence-based policy’ (his term – one I reject) is meant to address. Speaking only for my own book, I lay out the problem of bias in evidence use as the key motivation driving both advocates of greater evidence use as well as policy scholars critical of (oversimplified) knowledge translation efforts. But I distinguish between two forms of bias: technical bias – whereby evidence is used in ways that do not adhere to scientific best practice and thus produce sub-optimal social outcomes; and issue bias – whereby pieces of evidence, or mechanisms of evidence use, can obscure the important political choices in decision making, skewing policy choices towards those things that have been measured, or are conducive to measurement. Both of these forms of bias are violations of widely held social values – values of scientific fidelity on the one hand, and of democratic representation on the other. As such, for me, these are the problems that I try to consider in my book, exploring the political and cognitive origins of both, in order to inform thinking on how to address them.

That said, I think Joshua is right in some of the distinctions he makes between our works in how we try to take this field forward, or move beyond current challenges in differing ways. Paul takes the position that researchers need to do something, and one thing they can do is better understand politics and policy making. I think Paul’s writings about policy studies for students is superb (see his book and blog posts about policy concepts). But in terms of applying these insights to evidence use, this is where we most often diverge. I feel that keeping the focus on researchers puts too much emphasis on achieving ‘uptake’ of researcher’s own findings. In my view, I would point to three potential (overlapping) problems with this.

  • First – I do not think it is the role or responsibility of researchers to do this, but rather a failure to establish the right system of evidence provision;
  • Second – I feel it leaves unstated the important but oft ignored normative question of how ‘should’ evidence be used to inform policy;
  • Third – I believe these calls rest on often unstated assumptions about the answer to the second point which we may wish to challenge.

In terms of the first point: I’m more of an institutionalist (as Joshua points out). My view is that the problems around non-use or misuse of evidence can be seen as resulting from a failure to establish appropriate systems that govern the use of evidence in policy processes. As such, the solution would have to lie with institutional development and changes (my final chapter advocates for this) that establish systems which serve to achieve the good governance of evidence.

Paul’s response to Joshua says that researchers are demanding action, so he speaks to them. He wants researchers to develop “useful knowledge of the policy process in which they might want to engage” (as he says above).  Yet while some researchers may wish to engage with policy processes, I think it needs to be clear that doing so is inherently a political act – and can take on a role of issue advocacy by promoting those things you researched or measured over other possible policy considerations (points made well by Roger Pielke Jr. in The Honest Broker). The alternative I point towards is to consider what good systems of evidence use would look like. This is the difference between arguing for more uptake of research, vs. arguing for systems through which all policy relevant evidence can be seen and considered in appropriate ways – regardless of the political savvy, networking, or activism of any given researcher (in my book I have chapters reflecting on what appropriate evidence for policy might be, and what a good process for its use might be, based on particular widely shared values).

In terms of the second and third points – my book might be the most explicit in its discussion of the normative values guiding efforts to improve evidence, and I am more critical than some about the assumption that getting researchers work ‘used’ by policymakers is a de-facto good thing. This is why I disagree with Joshua’s conclusion that my work frames the problem as ‘bridging the gap’. Rather I’d say I frame the problem as asking the question of ‘what does a better system of evidence use look like from a political perspective?’ My ‘good governance of evidence’ discussion presents an explicitly normative framework based the two sets of values mentioned above – those around democratic accountability and around fidelity to scientific good practice – both of which have been raised as important in discussions about evidence use in political processes.

Is the onus on researchers?

Finally, I also would argue against Joshua’s conclusion that my work places the burden of resolving the problems on researchers. Paul argues above that he does this but with good reason. I try not to do this. This is again because my book is not making an argument for more evidence to be ‘used’ per se. (and I don’t expect policy makers to just want to use it either). Rather I focus on identifying principles by which we can judge systems of evidence use, calling for guided incremental changes within national systems.

While I think academics can play an important role in establishing ‘best practice’ ideas, I explicitly argue that the mandate to establish, build, or incrementally change evidence advisory systems lies with the representatives of the people. Indeed, I include ‘stewardship’ as a core principle of my good governance of evidence framework to show that it should be those individuals who are accountable to the public that build these systems in different countries. Thus, the burden lies not with academics, but rather with our representatives – and, indirectly with all of us through the demands we make on them – to improve systems of evidence use.


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Debating the politics of evidence-based policy

Joshua Newman has provided an interesting review of three recent books on evidence/ policy (click here). One of those books is mine: The Politics of Evidence-Based Policy Making (which you can access here).

His review is very polite, for which I thank him. I hope my brief response can be seen in a similarly positive light (well, I had hoped to make it brief). Maybe we disagree on one or two things, but often these discussions are about the things we emphasize and the way we describe similar points.

There are 5 points to which I respond because I have 5 digits on my right hand. I’d like you to think of me counting them out on my fingers. In doing so, I’ll use ‘Newman’ throughout, because that’s the academic convention, but I’d also like to you imagine me reading my points aloud and whispering ‘Joshua’ before each ‘Newman’.

  1. Do we really need to ‘take the debate forward’ so often?

I use this phrase myself, knowingly, to keep a discussion catchy, but I think it’s often misleading. I suggest not to get your hopes up too high when Newman raises the possibility of taking the debate forward with his concluding questions. We won’t resolve the relationship between evidence, politics & policy by pretending to reframe the same collection of questions about the prospect of political reform that people have been asking for centuries. It is useful to envisage better political systems (the subject of Newman’s concluding remarks) but I don’t think we should pretend that this is a new concern or that it will get us very far.

Indeed, my usual argument is that researchers need to do something (such as improve how we engage in the policy process) while we wait for political system reforms to happen (while doubting if they will ever happen).

Further, Newman does not produce any political reforms to address the problems he raises. Rather, for example, he draws attention to Trump to describe modern democracies as ‘not pluralist utopias’ and to identify examples in which policymakers draw primarily on beliefs, not evidence. By restating these problems, he does not solve them. So, what are researchers supposed to do after they grow tired of complaining that the world does not meet their hopes or expectations?

In other words, for me, (a) promoting political change and (b) acting during its absence are two sides of the same coin. We go round and round more often than we take things forward.

  1. What debate are we renaming?

Newman’s ‘we’ve heard it before’ argument seems more useful, but there is a lot to hear and relatively few people have heard it. I’d warn against the assumption that ‘I’ve heard this before’ can ever equal ‘we’ve heard it before’ (unless ‘we’ refers to a tiny group of specialists talking only to each other).

Rather, one of the most important things we can do as academics is to tell the same story to each other (to check if we understand the same story, in the same way, and if it remains useful) and to wider audiences (in a way that they can pick up and use without dedicating their career to our discipline).

Some of our most important insights endure for decades and they sometimes improve in the retelling. We apply them to new eras, and often come to the same basic conclusions, but it seems unhelpful to criticise a lack of complete novelty in individual texts (particularly when they are often designed to be syntheses). Why not use them to occasionally take a step back to discuss and clarify what we know?

Perhaps more importantly, I don’t think Newman is correct when he says that each book retells the story of the ‘research utilization’ literature. I’m retelling the story of policy theory, which describes how policymakers deal with bounded rationality in a complex policymaking environment. Policy theory’s intellectual histories often provide very different perspectives – of the policymaker trying to make good enough decisions, rather than the researcher trying to improve the uptake of their research – than the agenda inspired by Weiss et al (see for example The New Policy Sciences).

  1. Don’t just ‘get political’; understand the policy process

I draw on policy theory because it helps people understand policymaking. It would be a mistake to conclude from my book that I simply want researchers to ‘get political’. Rather, I want them to develop useful knowledge of the policy process in which they might want to engage. This knowledge is not freely available; it takes time to understand the discipline and reflect on policy dynamics.

Yet, the payoff can be profound, if only because it helps people think about the difference between two analytically separate causes of a notional ‘evidence policy gap’: (a) individuals making choices based on their beliefs and limited information (which is relatively easy to understand but also to caricature), and (b) systemic or ‘environmental’ causes (which are far more difficult to conceptualise and explain, but often more useful to understand).

  1. Don’t throw out the ‘two communities’ phrase without explaining why

Newman criticises the phrase ‘two communities’ as a description of silos in policymaking versus research, partly because (a) many policymakers use research frequently, and (b) the real divide is often between users/ non-users of research within policymaking organisations. In short, there are more than two communities.

I’d back up his published research with my anecdotal experience of giving talks to government audiences: researchers and analysts within government are often very similar in outlook to academics and they often talk in the same way as academics about the disconnect between their (original or synthetic) research and its use by their ‘operational’ colleagues.

Still, I’m not sure why Newman concludes that the ‘two communities’ phrase is ‘deeply flawed and probably counter-productive’. Yes, the world is more nuanced and less binary than ‘two communities’ suggests. Yes, the real divide may be harder to spot. Still, as Newman et al suggest: ‘Policy makers and academics should focus on bridging instruments that can bring their worlds closer together’. This bullet point from their article seems, to me, to be the point of using the phrase ‘two communities’. Maybe Caplan used the phrase differently in 1979, but to assert its historic meaning then reject the phrase’s use in modern discussion seems less useful than simply clarifying the argument in ways such as:

  • There is no simple policymaker/ academic divide but, … note the major difference in requirements between (a) people who produce or distribute research without taking action, which allows them (for example) to be more comfortable with uncertainty, and (b) people who need to make choices despite having incomplete information to hand.
  • You might find a more receptive audience in one part of government (e.g. research/ analytical) than another (e.g. operational), so be careful about generalising from singular experiences.
  1. Should researchers engage in the policy process?

Newman says that each book, ‘unfairly places the burden of resolving the problem in the hands of an ill-equipped group of academics, operating outside the political system’.

I agree with Newman when he says that many researchers do not possess the skills to engage effectively in the policy process. Scientific training does not equip us with political skills. Indeed, I think you could read a few of my blog posts and conclude, reasonably, that you would like nothing more to do with the policy process because you’d be more effective by focusing on research.

The reason I put the onus back on researchers is because I am engaging with arguments like the one expressed by Newman (in other words, part of the meaning comes from the audience). Many people conclude their evidence policy discussions by identifying (or ‘reframing’) the problem primarily as the need for political reform. For me, the focus on other people changing to suit your preferences seems unrealistic and misplaced. In that context, I present the counter-argument that it may be better to adapt effectively to the policy process that exists, not the one you’d like to see. Sometimes it’s more useful to wear a coat than complain about the weather.

See also:  The Politics of Evidence 

The Politics of Evidence revisited


Pivot cover

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Evidence based medicine provides a template for evidence based policy, but not in the way you expect

Guest post by Dr Kathryn Oliver and Dr Warren Pearce to celebrate the publication of their new Open Access article ‘Three lessons from evidence-based medicine and policy‘ in Palgrave Communications,

Part of the  Open Access series ‘politics of evidence based policymaking‘ (for which we still welcome submissions).

Evidence-based medicine (EBM) is often described as a ‘template’ for evidence-based policymaking (EBPM).

Critics of this idea would be 100% right if EBM lived up to its inaccurate caricature, in which there is an inflexible ‘hierarchy of evidence’ which dismisses too much useful knowledge and closes off the ability of practitioners to use their judgement.

In politics, this would be disastrous because there are many sources of legitimate knowledge and ‘the evidence’ cannot and should not become an alternative to political choice. And, of course, politicians must use their judgement, as – unlike medicine – there is no menu of possible answers to any problem.

Yet, modern forms of EBM – or, at least, sensible approaches to it – do not live up to this caricature. Instead, EBM began as a way to support individual decision-makers, and has evolved to reflect new ways of thinking about three main dilemmas. The answers to these dilemmas can help improve policymaking.

How to be more transparent

First, evidence-informed clinical practice guidelines lead the way in transparency. There’s a clear, transparent process to frame a problem, gather and assess evidence, and, through a deliberative discussion with relevant stakeholders, decide on clinical recommendations. Alongside other tools and processes, this demonstrates transparency which increases trust in the system.

How to balance research and practitioner knowledge

Second, dialogues in EBM help us understand how to balance research and practitioner knowledge. EBM has moved beyond the provision of research evidence, towards recognising and legitimising a negotiation between individual contexts, the expertise of decision-makers, and technical advice on interpreting research findings for different settings.

How to be more explicit about how you balance evidence, power, and values

Third, EBM helps us think about how to share power to co-produce policy and to think about how we combine evidence, values, and our ideas about who commands the most legitimate sources of power and accountability. We know that new structures for dialogue and decision-making can formalise and codify processes, but they do not necessarily lead to inclusion of a diverse set of voices. Power matters in dictating what knowledge is produced, for whom, and what is done with it. EBM has offered as many negative as positive lessons so far, particularly when sources of research expertise have been reluctant to let go enough to really co-produce knowledge or policy, but new studies and frameworks are at least keeping this debate alive.

Overall, our discussion of EBM challenges critics to identify its real-world application, not the old caricature. If so, it can help show us how one of the most active research agendas, on the relationship between high quality evidence and effective action, provides lessons for politics. In the main, the lesson is that our aim is not simply to maximise the use of evidence in policy, but to maximise the credibility of evidence and legitimacy of evidence advocates when so many other people have a legitimate claim to knowledge and authoritative action.

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Speaking truth to power: a sometimes heroic but often counterproductive strategy

Our MPP class started talking about which Tom Cruise character policy analysts should be.

It started off as a point about who not to emulate: Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men. I used this character (inaccurately) to represent the archetype of someone ‘speaking truth to power’ (yes, I know TC actually said ‘I want the truth’ and JN said ‘you can’t handle the truth’).

The story of ‘speaking truth to power’ comes up frequently in discussions of the potentially heroic nature of researchers committed to (a) producing the best scientific evidence, (b) maximising the role of scientific evidence in policy, and (b) telling off policymakers if they don’t use evidence to inform their decisions. They can’t handle the truth.

Yet, as I argue in this article with Richard Kwiatkowski (for this series on evidence/policy) ‘without establishing legitimacy and building trust’ it can prove to be counterproductive. Relevant sections include:

This involves showing simple respect and seeking ways to secure their trust, rather than feeling egotistically pleased about ‘speaking truth to power’ without discernible progress. Effective engagement requires preparation, diplomacy, and good judgement as much as good evidence.


One solution [to obstacles associated with organizational psychology, discussed by Larrick] is ‘task conflict’ rather than ‘relationship conflict’, to encourage information sharing without major repercussions. It requires the trust and ‘psychological safety’ that comes with ‘team development’ … If successful, one can ‘speak truth to power’ … or be confident that your presentation of evidence, which challenges the status quo, is received positively.  Under such circumstances, a ‘battle of ideas’ can genuinely take place and new thinking can be possible. If these circumstances are not present, speaking truth to power may be disastrous.

The policy analyst would be better as the Tom Cruise character in Live, Die, Repeat. He exhibits a lot of relevant behaviour:

  • Engaging in trial and error to foster practical learning
  • Building up trust with, and learning from, key allies with more knowledge and skills
  • Forming part of, and putting faith in, a team of which he is a necessary but insufficient part

In The New Policy Sciences, Chris Weible and I put it this way:

focus on engagement for the long term to develop the resources necessary to maximize the impact of policy analysis and understand the context in which the information is used. Among the advantages of long-term engagement are learning the ‘rules of the game’ in organizations, forming networks built on trust and a track record of reliability, learning how to ‘soften’ policy solutions according to the beliefs of key policymakers and influencers, and spotting ‘windows of opportunity’ to bring together attention to a problem, a feasible solution, and the motive and opportunity of policymakers to select it …In short, the substance of your analysis only has meaning in relation to the context in which it is used. Further, generating trust in the messenger and knowing your audience may be more important to success than presenting the evidence.

I know TC was the hero, but he couldn’t have succeeded without training by Emily Blunt and help from that guy who used to be in Eastenders. To get that help, he had to stop being an arse when addressing thingy from Big Love.

In real world policymaking, individual scientists should not see themselves as heroes to be respected instantly and simply for their knowledge. They will only effective in several venues – from the lab to public and political arenas – if they are humble enough to learn from others and respect the knowledge and skills of other people. ‘Speaking truth to power’ is catchy and exciting but it doesn’t capture the sense of pragmatism we often need to be effective.

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A 5-step strategy to make evidence count

5 stepsLet’s imagine a heroic researcher, producing the best evidence and fearlessly ‘speaking truth to power’. Then, let’s place this person in four scenarios, each of which combines a discussion of evidence, policy, and politics in different ways.

  1. Imagine your hero presents to HM Treasury an evidence-based report concluding that a unitary UK state would be far more efficient than a union state guaranteeing Scottish devolution. The evidence is top quality and the reasoning is sound, but the research question is ridiculous. The result of political deliberation and electoral choice suggests that your hero is asking a research question that does not deserve to be funded in the current political climate. Your hero is a clown.
  2. Imagine your hero presents to the Department of Health a report based on the systematic review of multiple randomised control trials. It recommends that you roll out an almost-identical early years or public health intervention across the whole country. We need high ‘fidelity’ to the model to ensure the correct ‘dosage’ and to measure its effect scientifically. The evidence is of the highest quality, but the research question is not quite right. The government has decided to devolve this responsibility to local public bodies and/ or encourage the co-production of public service design by local public bodies, communities, and service users. So, to focus narrowly on fidelity would be to ignore political choices (perhaps backed by different evidence) about how best to govern. If you don’t know the politics involved, you will ask the wrong questions or provide evidence with unclear relevance. Your hero is either a fool, naïve to the dynamics of governance, or a villain willing to ignore governance principles.        
  3. Imagine two fundamentally different – but equally heroic – professions with their own ideas about evidence. One favours a hierarchy of evidence in which RCTs and their systematic review is at the top, and service user and practitioner feedback is near the bottom. The other rejects this hierarchy completely, identifying the unique, complex relationship between practitioner and service user which requires high discretion to make choices in situations that will differ each time. Trying to resolve a debate between them with reference to ‘the evidence’ makes no sense. This is about a conflict between two heroes with opposing beliefs and preferences that can only be resolved through compromise or political choice. This is, oh I don’t know, Batman v Superman, saved by Wonder Woman.
  4. Imagine you want the evidence on hydraulic fracturing for shale oil and gas. We know that ‘the evidence’ follows the question: how much can we extract? How much revenue will it produce? Is it safe, from an engineering point of view? Is it safe, from a public health point of view? What will be its impact on climate change? What proportion of the public supports it? What proportion of the electorate supports it? Who will win and lose from the decision? It would be naïve to think that there is some kind of neutral way to produce an evidence-based analysis of such issues. The commissioning and integration of evidence has to be political. To pretend otherwise is a political strategy. Your hero may be another person’s villain.

Now, let’s use these scenarios to produce a 5-step way to ‘make evidence count’.

Step 1. Respect the positive role of politics

A narrow focus on making the supply of evidence count, via ‘evidence-based policymaking’, will always be dispiriting because it ignores politics or treats political choice as an inconvenience. If we:

  • begin with a focus on why we need political systems to make authoritative choices between conflicting preferences, and take governance principles seriously, we can
  • identify the demand for evidence in that context, then be more strategic and pragmatic about making evidence count, and
  • be less dispirited about the outcome.

In other words, think about the positive and necessary role of democratic politics before bemoaning post-truth politics and policy-based-evidence-making.

Step 2. Reject simple models of evidence-based policymaking

Policy is not made in a cycle containing a linear series of separate stages and we won’t ‘make evidence count’ by using it to inform our practices.


You might not want to give up the cycle image because it presents a simple account of how you should make policy. It suggests that we elect policymakers then: identify their aims, identify policies to achieve those aims, select a policy measure, ensure that the selection is legitimised by the population or its legislature, identify the necessary resources, implement and then evaluate. Or, policymakers aided by expert policy analysts make and legitimise choices, skilful public servants carry them out, and, policy analysts assess the results using evidence.

One compromise is to keep the cycle then show how messy it is in practice:

However, there comes a point when there is too much mess, and the image no longer helps you explain (a) to the public what you are doing, or (b) to providers of evidence how they should engage in political systems. By this point, simple messages from more complicated policy theories may be more useful.

Or, we may no longer want a cycle to symbolise a single source of policymaking authority. In a multi-level system, with many ‘centres’ possessing their own sources of legitimate authority, a single and simple policy cycle seems too artificial to be useful.

Step 3. Tell a simple story about your evidence

People are ‘cognitive misers’ seeking ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ shortcuts to gather information for action, so you won’t get far if you bombard them with too much evidence. Policymakers already have too much evidence and they seek ways to reduce their cognitive load, relying on: (a) trusted sources of concise evidence relevant to their aims, and (b) their own experience, gut instinct, beliefs, and emotions.

The implication of both shortcuts is that we need to tell simple and persuasive stories about the substance and implications of the evidence we present. To say that ‘the evidence does not speak for itself’ may seem trite, but I’ve met too many people who assume naively that it will somehow ‘win the day’. In contrast, civil servants know that the evidence-informed advice they give to ministers needs to relate to the story that government ministers tell to the public.


Step 4.  Tailor your story to many audiences

In a complex or multi-level environment, one story to one audience (such as a minister) is not enough. If there are many key sources of policymaking authority – including public bodies with high autonomy, organisations and practitioners with the discretion to deliver services, and service users involved in designing services – there are many stories being told about what we should be doing and why. We may convince one audience and alienate (or fail to inspire) another with the same story.

Step 5. Clarify and address key dilemmas with political choice, not evidence

Let me give you one example of the dilemmas that must arise when you combine evidence and politics to produce policy: how do you produce a model of ‘evidence based best practice’ which combines evidence and governance principles in a consistent way? Here are 3 ideal-type models which answer the question in very different ways

Table 1 Three ideal types EBBP

The table helps us think through the tensions between models, built on very different principles of good evidence and governance.

In practice, you may want to combine different elements, perhaps while arguing that the loss of consistency is lower than the gain from flexibility. Or, the dynamics of political systems limit such choice or prompt ad hoc and inconsistent choices.

I built a lot of this analysis on the experiences of the Scottish Government, which juggles all three models, including a key focus on improvement method in its Early Years Collaborative.

However, Kathryn Oliver and I show that the UK government faces the same basic dilemma and addresses it in similar ways.

The example freshest in my mind is Sure Start. Its rationale was built on RCT evidence and systematic review. However, its roll-out was built more on local flexibility and service design than insistence on fidelity to a model. More recently, the Troubled Families programme initially set the policy agenda and criteria for inclusion, but increasingly invites local public bodies to select the most appropriate interventions, aided by the Early Intervention Foundation which reviews the evidence but does not insist on one-best-way. Emily St Denny and I explore these issues further in our forthcoming book on prevention policy, an exemplar case study of a field in which it is difficult to know how to ‘make evidence count’.

If you prefer a 3-step take home message:

  1. I think we use phrases like ‘impact’ and ‘make evidence count’ to reflect a vague and general worry about a decline in respect for evidence and experts. Certainly, when I go to large conferences of scientists, they usually tell a story about ‘post-truth’ politics.
  2. Usually, these stories do not acknowledge the difference between two different explanations for an evidence-policy gap: (a) pathological policymaking and corrupt politicians, versus (b) complex policymaking and politicians having to make choices despite uncertainty.
  3. To produce evidence with ‘impact’, and know how to ‘make evidence count’, we need to understand the policy process and the demand for evidence within it.

*Background. This is a post for my talk at the Government Economic Service and Government Social Research Service Annual Training Conference (15th September 2017). This year’s theme is ‘Impact and Future-Proofing: Making Evidence Count’. My brief is to discuss evidence use in the Scottish Government, but it faces the same basic question as the UK Government: how do you combine principles of evidence quality and governance principles? In other words, if you were in a position to design an (a) evidence-gathering system and (b) a political system, you’d soon find major points of tension between them. Resolving those tensions involves political choice, not more evidence. Of course, you are not in a position to design both systems, so the more complicated question is: how do you satisfy principles of evidence and governance in a complex policy process, often driven by policymaker psychology, over which you have little control?  Here are 7 different ‘answers’.

Powerpoint Paul Cairney @ GES GSRS 2017

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The Politics of Evidence

This is a draft of my review of Justin Parkhurst (2017) The Politics of Evidence (Routledge, Open Access)

Justin Parkhurst’s aim is to identify key principles to take forward the ‘good governance of evidence’. The good governance of scientific evidence in policy and policymaking requires us to address two fundamentally important ‘biases’:

  1. Technical bias. Some organisations produce bad evidence, some parts of government cherry-pick, manipulate, or ignore evidence, and some politicians misinterpret the implications of evidence when calculating risk. Sometimes, these things are done deliberately for political gain. Sometimes they are caused by cognitive biases which cause us to interpret evidence in problematic ways. For example, you can seek evidence that confirms your position, and/ or only believe the evidence that confirms it.
  2. Issue bias. Some evidence advocates use the mantra of ‘evidence based policy’ to depoliticise issues or downplay the need to resolve conflicts over values. They also focus on the problems most conducive to study via their most respected methods such as randomised control trials (RCTs). Methodological rigour trumps policy relevance and simple experiments trump the exploration of complex solutions. So, we lose sight of the unintended consequences of producing the ‘best’ evidence to address a small number of problems, and making choices about the allocation of research resources and attention. Again, this can be deliberate or caused by cognitive biases, such as to seek simpler and more answerable questions than complex questions with no obvious answer.

To address both problems, Parkhurst seeks pragmatic ways to identify principles to decide what counts as ‘good evidence to inform policy’ and ‘what constitutes the good use of evidence within a policy process’:

‘it is necessary to consider how to establish evidence advisory systems that promote the good governance of evidence – working to ensure that rigorous, sys­tematic and technically valid pieces of evidence are used within decision-making processes that are inclusive of, representative of and accountable to the multiple social interests of the population served’ (p8).

Parkhurst identifies some ways in which to bring evidence and policy closer together. First, to produce evidence more appropriate for, or relevant to, policymaking (‘good evidence for policy’):

  1. Relate evidence more closely to policy goals.
  2. Modify research approaches and methods to answer policy relevant questions.
  3. Ensure that the evidence relates to the local or relevant context.

Second, to produce the ‘good use of evidence’, combine three forms of ‘legitimacy’:

  1. Input, to ensure democratic representative bodies have the final say.
  2. Throughput, to ensure widespread deliberation.
  3. Output, to ensure proper consideration the use of the most systematic, unbiased and rigorously produced scientific evidence relevant to the problem.

In the final chapter, Parkhurst suggests that these aims can be pursued in many ways depending on how governments want to design evidence advisory systems, but that it’s worth drawing on the examples of good practice he identifies. Parkhurst also explores the role for Academies of science, or initiatives such as the Cochrane Collaboration, to provide independent advice. He then outlines the good governance of evidence built on key principles: appropriate evidence, accountability in evidence use, transparency, and contestability (to ensure sufficient debate).

The overall result is a book full of interesting discussion and very sensible, general advice for people new to the topic of evidence and policy. This is no mean feat: most readers will seek a clearly explained and articulate account of the subject, and they get it here.

For me, the most interesting thing about Parkhurst’s book is the untold story, or often-implicit reasoning behind the way in which it is framed. We can infer that it is not a study aimed primarily at a political science or social science audience, because most of that audience would take its starting point for granted: the use of evidence is political, and politics involves values. Yet, Parkhurst feels the need to remind the reader of this point, in specific (“it is worth noting that the US presidency is a decidedly political role”, p43) and general circumstances (‘the nature of policymaking is inherently political’, p65). Throughout, the audience appears to be academics who begin with a desire for ‘evidence based policy’ without fully thinking through the implications, either about the lack of a magic bullet of evidence to solve a policy problem, how we might maintain a political system conducive to democratic principles and good evidence use, how we might design a system to reduce key ‘barriers’ between the supply of evidence by scientists and its demand by policymakers, and why few such designs have taken off.

In other words, the book appeals primarily to scientists trained outside social science, some of whom think about politics in their spare time, or encounter it in dispiriting encounters with policymakers. It appeals to that audience with a statement on the crucial role of high quality evidence in policymaking, highlights barriers to its use, tells scientists that they might be part of the problem, but then provides them with the comforting assurance that we can design better systems to overcome at least some of those barriers. For people trained in policy studies, this concluding discussion seems like a tall order, and I think most would read it with great scepticism.

Policy scientists might also be sceptical about the extent to which scientists from other fields think this way about hierarchies of scientific evidence and the desire to depoliticise politics with a primary focus on ‘what works’. Yet, I too hear this language regularly in interdisciplinary workshops (often while standing next to Justin!), and it is usually accompanied by descriptions of the pathology of policymaking, the rise of post-truth politics and rejection of experts, and the need to focus on the role of objective facts in deciding what policy solutions work best. Indeed, I was impressed recently by the skilled way in which another colleague prepared this audience for some provocative remarks when he suggested that the production and use of evidence is about power, not objectivity. OMG: who knew that policymaking was political and about power?!

So, the insights from this book are useful to a large audience of scientists while, for a smaller audience of policy scientists, they remind us that there is an audience out there for many of the statements that many of us would take for granted. Some evidence advocates use the language of ‘evidence based policymaking’ strategically, to get what they want. Others appear to use it because they believe it can exist. Keep this in mind when you read the book.



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