Coming to grips with evidence- based policy making: what do we need to know?

In many ways, 'evidence-based policymaking' is the bureaucrat's new black. But what, really, does it mean? Where does it fit in the broader policymaking process? And how 'realistic' do we need to be to use it in practice? Below, Paul Cairney explores these issues in the UK context. This post originally appeared on his personal blog and is accompanied by a longer lecture on the subject (listen) Paul is a Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of Stirling, you can follow him on twitter at @Cairneypaul.


Definitions and clarity are important, so what is ‘evidence-based policymaking’?

What is Policy? It is incredibly difficult to say what policy is and measure how much it has changed. I use the working definition, ‘the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes’ to raise important qualifications: (a) it is problematic to conflate what people say they will do and what they actually do; (b) a policy outcome can be very different from the intention; (c) policy is made routinely through cooperation between elected and unelected policymakers and actors with no formal role in the process; (d) policymaking is also about the power not to do something. It is also important to identify the many components or policy instruments that make up policies, including: the level of spending; the use of economic incentives/ penalties; regulations and laws; the use of voluntary agreements and codes of conduct; the provision of public services; education campaigns; funding for scientific studies or advocacy; organisational change; and, the levels of resources/ methods dedicated to policy implementation (2012a: 26).

In that context, we are trying to capture a process in which actors make and deliver ‘policy’ continuously, not identify a set-piece event which provides a single opportunity to use a piece of scientific evidence to prompt a policymaker response.

Who are the policymakers? The intuitive definition is ‘people who make policy’, but there are two important distinctions: (1) between elected and unelected participants, since people such as civil servants also make important decisions; (2) between people and organisations, with the latter used as a shorthand to refer to a group of people making decisions collectively. There are blurry dividing lines between the people who make and influence policy. Terms such as ‘policy community’ suggest that policy decisions are made by a collection of people with formal responsibility and informal influence. Consequently, we need to make clear what we mean by ‘policymakers’ when we identify how they use evidence.

What is evidence? We can define evidence as an argument backed by information. Scientific evidence describes information produced in a particular way. Some describe ‘scientific’ broadly, to refer to information gathered systematically using recognised methods, while others refer to a specific hierarchy of scientific methods, with randomized control trials (RCTs) and the systematic review of RCTs at the top. This is a crucial point:

policymakers will seek many kinds of information that many scientists would not consider to be ‘the evidence’.

This discussion helps identify two key points of potential confusion when people discuss EBPM:

  1. When you describe ‘evidence-based policy’ and EBPM you need to clarify what the policy is and who is making it. This is not just about some elected politicians making announcements.
  2. When you describe ‘evidence’ you need to clarify what counts as evidence and what an ‘evidence-based’ policy response would look like. This point is at the heart of often fruitless discussions about ‘policy based evidence’, which seems to describe almost a dozen alleged mistakes by policymakers (relating to ignoring evidence, using the wrong kinds, and/ or producing a disproportionate response).

Realistic models are important, so what is wrong with the policy cycle?

One traditional way to understand policymaking in the ‘real world’ is to compare it to an ideal-type: what happens when the conditions of the ideal-type are not met? We do this in particular with the ‘policy cycle and ‘comprehensive rationality’.

So, consider this modified ideal-type of EBPM:

  • There is a core group of policymakers at the ‘centre’, making policy from the ‘top down’, breaking down their task into clearly defined and well-ordered stages;
  • Scientists are in a privileged position to help those policymakers make good decisions by getting them as close as possible to the ideal of ‘comprehensive rationality’ in which they have the best information available to inform all options and consequences.

So far, so good (although you might stop to consider who is best placed to provide evidence, and who – or which methods of evidence gathering – should be privileged or excluded), but what happens when we move away from the ideal-type? Here are two insights from a forthcoming paper (Cairney Oliver Wellstead 26.1.16).

Lessons from policy theory: 1. Identify multi-level policymaking environments

First, policymaking takes place in less ordered and predictable policy environment, exhibiting:

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

A focus on this bigger picture shifts our attention from the use of scientific evidence by an elite group of elected policymakers at the ‘top’ to its use by a wide range of influential actors in a multi-level policy process. It shows scientists and practitioners that they are competing with many actors to present evidence in a particular way to secure a policymaker audience. Support for particular solutions varies according to which organisation takes the lead and how it understands the problem. Some networks are close-knit and difficult to access because bureaucracies have operating procedures that favour particular sources of evidence and some participants over others, and there is a language – indicating what ways of thinking are in good ‘currency’ (such as ‘value for money’) – that takes time to learn. Well-established beliefs provide the context for policymaking: new evidence on the effectiveness of a policy solution has to be accompanied by a shift of attention and successful persuasion. In some cases, social or economic ‘crises’ can prompt lurches of attention from one issue to another, and some forms of evidence can be used to encourage that shift. In this context, too many practitioner studies analyse, for example, a singular point of central government decision rather than the longer term process. Overcoming barriers to influence in that small part of the process will not provide an overall solution.

Lessons from policy theory: 2. Policymakers use two ‘shortcuts’ to make decisions

How do policymakers deal with their ‘bounded rationality’? They employ two kinds of shortcut: ‘rational’, by pursuing clear goals and prioritizing certain kinds and sources of information, and ‘irrational’, by drawing on emotions, gut feelings, deeply held beliefs, habits, and the familiar to make decisions quickly. Consequently, the focus of policy theories is on the links between evidence, persuasion, and framing (in the wider context of a tendency for certain beliefs to dominate discussion).

Framing refers to the ways in which we understand, portray, and categorise issues. Problems are multi-faceted, but bounded rationality limits the attention of policymakers, and actors compete to highlight one image at the expense of others. The outcome of this process determines who is involved (for example, portraying an issue as technical limits involvement to experts), who is responsible for policy, how much attention they pay, and what kind of solution they favour. For example, tobacco control is more likely when policymakers view it primarily as a public health epidemic rather than an economic good, while ‘fracking’ policy depends on its primary image as a new oil boom or environmental disaster (I discuss both examples in depth here).

Scientific evidence plays a part in this process, but we should not exaggerate the ability of scientists to win the day with reference to evidence. Rather, policy theories signal the strategies that practitioners may have to adopt to increase demand for their evidence:

  • to combine facts with emotional appeals, to prompt lurches of policymaker attention from one policy image to another (punctuated equilibrium theory)
  • to tell simple stories which are easy to understand, help manipulate people’s biases, apportion praise and blame, and highlight the moral and political value of solutions (narrative policy framework)
  • to interpret new evidence through the lens of the pre-existing beliefs of actors within coalitions, some of which dominate policy networks (advocacy coalition framework)
  • to produce a policy solution that is feasible and exploit a time when policymakers have the opportunity to adopt it (multiple streams analysis).

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

This discussion helps identify two key points of potential confusion when people discuss the policy cycle and comprehensive rationality:

  1. These concepts are there to help us understand what doesn’t happen. What are the real world implications of the limits to these models?
  2. They do not help you give good advice to people trying to influence the policy process. A focus on going through policymaking ‘stages’ and improving ‘rationality’ is always relevant when you give advice to policymakers. However unrealistic these models are, you would still want to gather the maximum information and go through a process of stages. This is very different from (a) giving advice on how to influence the process, or (b) evaluating the pros and cons of a political system with reference to ideal-types.

Realistic strategies are important, so how far should you go to overcome ‘barriers’ between evidence and policy?

You can’t take the politics out of EBPM. Even the selection of ‘the evidence’ is political (should evidence be scientific, and what counts as scientific evidence?).

Further, providers of scientific evidence face major dilemmas when they seek to maximise the ‘impact’ of their research. Armed with this knowledge of the policy process, how should you seek to engage and influence decisions made within it? Rather than finish on a cliff-hanger, a good answer to these questions is here. Or, for those of you that love videos as much as I do, this one is highly recommended.

Posted by Luke Craven