Tag Archives: The politics of evidence

Evidence-based policymaking: political strategies for scientists living in the real world

Note: I wrote the following discussion (last year) to be a Nature Comment but it was not to be!

Nature articles on evidence-based policymaking often present what scientists would like to see: rules to minimise bias caused by the cognitive limits of policymakers, and a simple policy process in which we know how and when to present the best evidence.[1]  What if neither requirement is ever met? Scientists will despair of policymaking while their competitors engage pragmatically and more effectively.[2]

Alternatively, if scientists learned from successful interest groups, or by using insights from policy studies, they could develop three ‘take home messages’: understand and engage with policymaking in the real world; learn how and when evidence ‘wins the day’; and, decide how far you should go to maximise the use of scientific evidence. Political science helps explain this process[3], and new systematic and thematic reviews add new insights.[4] [5] [6] [7]

Understand and engage with policymaking in the real world

Scientists are drawn to the ‘policy cycle’, because it offers a simple – but misleading – model for engagement with policymaking.[3] It identifies a core group of policymakers at the ‘centre’ of government, perhaps giving the impression that scientists should identify the correct ‘stages’ in which to engage (such as ‘agenda setting’ and ‘policy formulation’) to ensure the best use of evidence at the point of authoritative choice. This is certainly the image generated most frequently by health and environmental scientists when they seek insights from policy studies.[8]

Yet, this model does not describe reality. Many policymakers, in many levels and types of government, adopt and implement many measures at different times. For simplicity, we call the result ‘policy’ but almost no modern policy theory retains the linear policy cycle concept. In fact, it is more common to describe counterintuitive processes in which, for example, by the time policymaker attention rises to a policy problem at the ‘agenda setting’ stage, it is too late to formulate a solution. Instead, ‘policy entrepreneurs’ develop technically and politically feasible solutions then wait for attention to rise and for policymakers to have the motive and opportunity to act.[9]

Experienced government science advisors recognise this inability of the policy cycle image to describe real world policymaking. For example, Sir Peter Gluckman presents an amended version of this model, in which there are many interacting cycles in a kaleidoscope of activity, defying attempts to produce simple flow charts or decision trees. He describes the ‘art and craft’ of policy engagement, using simple heuristics to deal with a complex and ‘messy’ policy system.[10]

Policy studies help us identify two such heuristics or simple strategies.

First, respond to policymaker psychology by adapting to the short cuts they use to gather enough information quickly: ‘rational’, via trusted sources of oral and written evidence, and ‘irrational’, via their beliefs, emotions, and habits. Policy theories describe many interest group or ‘advocacy coalition’ strategies, including a tendency to combine evidence with emotional appeals, romanticise their own cause and demonise their opponents, or tell simple emotional stories with a hero and moral to exploit the biases of their audience.[11]

Second, adapt to complex ‘policy environments’ including: many policymakers at many levels and types of government, each with their own rules of evidence gathering, network formation, and ways of understanding policy problems and relevant socioeconomic conditions.[2] For example, advocates of international treaties often find that the evidence-based arguments their international audience takes for granted become hotly contested at national or subnational levels (even if the national government is a signatory), while the same interest groups presenting the same evidence of a problem can be key insiders in one government department but ignored in another.[3]

Learn the conditions under which evidence ‘wins the day’ in policymaking

Consequently, the availability and supply of scientific evidence, on the nature of problems and effectiveness of solutions, is a necessary but insufficient condition for evidence-informed policy. Three others must be met: actors use scientific evidence to persuade policymakers to pay attention to, and shift their understanding of, policy problems; the policy environment becomes broadly conducive to policy change; and, actors exploit attention to a problem, the availability of a feasible solution, and the motivation of policymakers, during a ‘window of opportunity’ to adopt specific policy instruments.10

Tobacco control represents a ‘best case’ example (box 1) from which we can draw key lessons for ecological and environmental policies, giving us a sense of perspective by highlighting the long term potential for major evidence-informed policy change. However, unlike their colleagues in public health, environmental scientists have not developed a clear sense of how to produce policy instruments that are technically and politically feasible, so the delivery of comparable policy change is not inevitable.[12]

Box 1: Tobacco policy as a best case and cautionary tale of evidence-based policymaking

Tobacco policy is a key example – and useful comparator for ecological and environmental policies – since it represents a best case scenario and cautionary tale.[13] On the one hand, the scientific evidence on the links between smoking, mortality, and preventable death forms the basis for modern tobacco control policy. Leading countries – and the World Health Organisation, which oversees the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) – frame tobacco use as a public health ‘epidemic’ and allow their health departments to take the policy lead. Health departments foster networks with public health and medical groups at the expense of the tobacco industry, and emphasise the socioeconomic conditions – reductions in (a) smoking prevalence, (b) opposition to tobacco control, and (c) economic benefits to tobacco – most supportive of tobacco control. This framing, and conducive policymaking environment, helps give policymakers the motive and opportunity to choose policy instruments, such as bans on smoking in public places, which would otherwise seem politically infeasible.

On the other hand, even in a small handful of leading countries such as the UK, it took twenty to thirty years to go from the supply of the evidence to a proportionate government response: from the early evidence on smoking in the 1950s prompting major changes from the 1980s, to the evidence on passive smoking in the 1980s prompting public bans from the 2000s onwards. In most countries, the production of a ‘comprehensive’ set of policy measures is not yet complete, even though most signed the FCTC.

Decide how far you’ll go to maximise the use of scientific evidence in policymaking

These insights help challenge the naïve position that, if policymaking can change to become less dysfunctional[1], scientists can be ‘honest brokers’[14] and expect policymakers to use their evidence quickly, routinely, and sincerely. Even in the best case scenario, evidence-informed change takes hard work, persistence, and decades to achieve.

Since policymaking will always appear ‘irrational’ and complex’[3], scientists need to think harder about their role, then choose to engage more effectively or accept their lack of influence.

To deal with ‘irrational’ policymakers, they should combine evidence with persuasion, simple stories, and emotional appeals, and frame their evidence to make the implications consistent with policymakers’ beliefs.

To deal with complex environments, they should engage for the long term to work out how to form alliances with influencers who share their beliefs, understand in which ‘venues’ authoritative decisions are made and carried out, the rules of information processing in those venues, and the ‘currency’ used by policymakers when they describe policy problems and feasible solutions.[2] In other words, develop skills that do not come with scientific training, avoid waiting for others to share your scientific mindset or respect for scientific evidence, and plan for the likely eventuality that policymaking will never become ‘evidence based’.

This approach may be taken for granted in policy studies[15], but it raises uncomfortable dilemmas regarding how far scientists should go, to maximise the use of scientific evidence in policy, using persuasion and coalition-building.

These dilemmas are too frequently overshadowed by claims – more comforting to scientists – that politicians are to blame because they do not understand how to generate, analyse, and use the best evidence. Scientists may only become effective in politics if they apply the same critical analysis to themselves.

[1] Sutherland, W.J. & Burgman, M. Nature 526, 317–318 (2015).

[2] Cairney, P. et al. Public Administration Review 76, 3, 399-402 (2016)

[3] Cairney, P. The Politics of Evidence-Based Policy Making (Palgrave Springer, 2016).

[4] Langer, L. et al. The Science of Using Science (EPPI, 2016)

[5] Breckon, J. & Dodson, J. Using Evidence. What Works? (Alliance for Useful Evidence, 2016)

[6] Palgrave Communications series The politics of evidence-based policymaking (ed. Cairney, P.)

[7] Practical lessons from policy theories (eds. Weible, C & Cairney, P.) Policy and Politics April 2018

[8] Oliver, K. et al. Health Research Policy and Systems, 12, 34 (2016)

[9] Kingdon, J. Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies (Harper Collins, 1984)

[10] Gluckmann, P. Understanding the challenges and opportunities at the science-policy interface

[11] Cairney, P. & Kwiatkowski, R. Palgrave Communications.

[12] Biesbroek et al. Nature Climate Change, 5, 6, 493–494 (2015)

[13] Cairney, P. & Yamazaki, M. Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis

[14] Pielke Jr, R. originated the specific term The honest broker (Cambridge University Press, 2007) but this role is described more loosely by other commentators.

[15] Cairney, P. & Oliver, K. Health Research Policy and Systems 15:35 (2017)

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Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

Why don’t policymakers listen to your evidence?

Since 2016, my most common academic presentation to interdisciplinary scientist/ researcher audiences is a variant of the question, ‘why don’t policymakers listen to your evidence?’

I tend to provide three main answers.

1. Many policymakers have many different ideas about what counts as good evidence

Few policymakers know or care about the criteria developed by some scientists to describe a hierarchy of scientific evidence. For some scientists, at the top of this hierarchy is the randomised control trial (RCT) and the systematic review of RCTs, with expertise much further down the list, followed by practitioner experience and service user feedback near the bottom.

Yet, most policymakers – and many academics – prefer a wider range of sources of information, combining their own experience with information ranging from peer reviewed scientific evidence and the ‘grey’ literature, to public opinion and feedback from consultation.

While it may be possible to persuade some central government departments or agencies to privilege scientific evidence, they also pursue other key principles, such as to foster consensus driven policymaking or a shift from centralist to localist practices.

Consequently, they often only recommend interventions rather than impose one uniform evidence-based position. If local actors favour a different policy solution, we may find that the same type of evidence may have more or less effect in different parts of government.

2. Policymakers have to ignore almost all evidence and almost every decision taken in their name

Many scientists articulate the idea that policymakers and scientists should cooperate to use the best evidence to determine ‘what works’ in policy (in forums such as INGSA, European Commission, OECD). Their language is often reminiscent of 1950s discussions of the pursuit of ‘comprehensive rationality’ in policymaking.

The key difference is that EBPM is often described as an ideal by scientists, to be compared with the more disappointing processes they find when they engage in politics. In contrast, ‘comprehensive rationality’ is an ideal-type, used to describe what cannot happen, and the practical implications of that impossibility.

The ideal-type involves a core group of elected policymakers at the ‘top’, identifying their values or the problems they seek to solve, and translating their policies into action to maximise benefits to society, aided by neutral organisations gathering all the facts necessary to produce policy solutions. Yet, in practice, they are unable to: separate values from facts in any meaningful way; rank policy aims in a logical and consistent manner; gather information comprehensively, or possess the cognitive ability to process it.

Instead, Simon famously described policymakers addressing ‘bounded rationality’ by using ‘rules of thumb’ to limit their analysis and produce ‘good enough’ decisions. More recently, punctuated equilibrium theory uses bounded rationality to show that policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of their responsibilities, which limits their control of the many decisions made in their name.

More recent discussions focus on the ‘rational’ short cuts that policymakers use to identify good enough sources of information, combined with the ‘irrational’ ways in which they use their beliefs, emotions, habits, and familiarity with issues to identify policy problems and solutions. Or, they explore how individuals communicate their narrow expertise within a system of which they have almost no knowledge. In each case, ‘most members of the system are not paying attention to most issues most of the time’.

This scarcity of attention helps explain, for example, why policymakers ignore most issues in the absence of a focusing event, policymaking organisations make searches for information which miss key elements routinely, and organisations fail to respond to events or changing circumstances proportionately.

In that context, attempts to describe a policy agenda focusing merely on ‘what works’ are based on misleading expectations. Rather, we can describe key parts of the policymaking environment – such as institutions, policy communities/ networks, or paradigms – as a reflection of the ways in which policymakers deal with their bounded rationality and lack of control of the policy process.

3. Policymakers do not control the policy process (in the way that a policy cycle suggests)

Scientists often appear to be drawn to the idea of a linear and orderly policy cycle with discrete stages – such as agenda setting, policy formulation, legitimation, implementation, evaluation, policy maintenance/ succession/ termination – because it offers a simple and appealing model which gives clear advice on how to engage.

Indeed, the stages approach began partly as a proposal to make the policy process more scientific and based on systematic policy analysis. It offers an idea of how policy should be made: elected policymakers in central government, aided by expert policy analysts, make and legitimise choices; skilful public servants carry them out; and, policy analysts assess the results with the aid of scientific evidence.

Yet, few policy theories describe this cycle as useful, while most – including the advocacy coalition framework , and the multiple streams approach – are based on a rejection of the explanatory value of orderly stages.

Policy theories also suggest that the cycle provides misleading practical advice: you will generally not find an orderly process with a clearly defined debate on problem definition, a single moment of authoritative choice, and a clear chance to use scientific evidence to evaluate policy before deciding whether or not to continue. Instead, the cycle exists as a story for policymakers to tell about their work, partly because it is consistent with the idea of elected policymakers being in charge and accountable.

Some scholars also question the appropriateness of a stages ideal, since it suggests that there should be a core group of policymakers making policy from the ‘top down’ and obliging others to carry out their aims, which does not leave room for, for example, the diffusion of power in multi-level systems, or the use of ‘localism’ to tailor policy to local needs and desires.

Now go to:

What can you do when policymakers ignore your evidence?

Further Reading

The politics of evidence-based policymaking

The politics of evidence-based policymaking: maximising the use of evidence in policy

Images of the policy process

How to communicate effectively with policymakers

Forthcoming special issue in Policy and Politics called ‘Practical lessons from policy theories’, which includes my discussion of how to be a ‘policy entrepreneur’.

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Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Psychology Based Policy Studies, Public health, public policy

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)

Powerpoint for guest lecture: Paul Cairney UK Government Evidence Policy

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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

 

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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.

and

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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