Evidenced-based policy making: what Westminster policy officers say they do and why

Where does evidence stand in the war on ideas within government? What are the barriers to evidence-based policy-making and what does a strategic, innovative, evidence-based policy system look like when you’ve got one?

Professor Mark Evans, Director of the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra, outlines findings from these questions and more gathered from a series of executive workshops held in Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand over the past three years.

This article was originally published at The Policy Space and republished here with permission and thanks.

Professor Mark Evans writes:

The age of evidence in policy making is over. If, of course, it ever really existed in the first place except in highly technocratic areas of policy development.

Successive Westminster politicians from Blair to Rudd and beyond continue to exalt the importance of evidence but the reality on the ground appears very different. This evidence-politics paradox was abundantly on display at the launch of The Mandarin at the National Press Club in September 2014. Malcolm Turnbull, Australian Minister of Communications, responded to a question on how the risk adverse nature of the Australian Public Service (APS) could be reversed. He encouraged the APS to “speak truth to power”, “champion innovation” and engage in evidence based policy making that “demonstrates what works”. In response, both Terry Moran, former secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and former APS Commissioner Andrew Podger challenged the government itself to be less risk adverse and give permission to the APS to innovate and be frank and fearless. It is evident that there is a profound misalignment between the political and bureaucratic classes on this issue and not just in Australia.

The observation that evidence based policy-making is an insufficient criterion for policy change is unsurprising for any informed observer of the policy process in Westminster style democracies. That political considerations more often than not trump the evidence appears a regular occurrence particularly in Ministries that are heavily politicized or attract significant media attention. But given this observation, what do policy officers do and what are the implications for strategic policy capability? This blog seeks to make sense of what Westminster policy officers say they do and why. It draws on evidence derived from a series of executive workshops held in Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand over the past three years.

We posed three sets of questions to our sample of Westminster policy officers using survey and workshop methods. This included questions crystallized around whether evidence was a sufficient criterion for winning the war of ideas in a contested policy environment (e.g. with special advisors), questions centering on the barriers to evidence-based policy-making and questions on how they imagine high quality policy advice.

On the issue of whether evidence is a sufficient criterion for winning the war of ideas, strong majorities recognized the importance of evidence as a necessary condition of better policy-making, but the vast majority identified an ongoing tension between short-term imperative and evidence-based policy-making combined with “Ministerial indifference over the facts”. In all three countries, policy officers spent most of their time retrofitting evidence to support decisions that had already been taken. Notably, more respondents who had been in the service for 10 years or more perceived that the use of evidence in policy-making was in ‘dramatic decline’ and, women were demonstrably more cynical than men. The type of department/agency also mattered. The more technical and less politicized the department the greater the focus on evidence based policy making.

So what does our sample of policy officers perceive to be the major barriers to getting evidence into policy-making? I have organised these for analytical reasons around three sets of barriers: “conceptual” barriers refer to how evidence-based policy making is perceived and practiced; “environmental” barriers are those barriers that are outside the control of policy officers but impact directly on their work; and “institutional” barriers refer to norms, rules, and processes that inhibit evidence-based policy-making. The critical barriers (those marked in italics) tend to crystallise around systemic issues such as the pathology of the short-term that drives the Westminster psychosis and an anti-evidence culture, the absence of strategic alignment between the political and bureaucratic elites but also capability problems that relate to the inability of policy officers to win the war of ideas in a contested policy space. This may also be reflected in the evident decline of the social status of the professional, apolitical public service; although this may be more of an Australian malaise.

Secondly, although the evidence isn’t compelling, there is a perception among political elites of the need for greater strategic policy capability in the public service. Here the Cameron government has introduced progressive change with the launch of the Policy Profession in 2013. Each central government department now has a head of policy who sits on a whole of government policy board headed by a senior permanent secretary. The purpose of the board is to identify 150 Whitehall policy professionals, and develop and foster a culture of high quality advice delivered through an outstanding strategic policy capability. A Masters of Public Policy has been co-designed with the London School of Economics to deliver on this purpose. It will be interesting to monitor its progress and evaluate whether it works or not!

Given these barriers how can we improve strategic policy making? There are at least three issues that require urgent attention. Firstly, the issue of achieving better strategic alignment between the political and bureaucratic classes is a perennial problem in Westminster style governments and has tended to reflect Prime Ministerial style and particularly the relationship between the Prime Minister and her or his senior mandarins. A huge advance was made under the Blair government in 2007 with the introduction of Public Service Agreements which established clear objectives for government and the civil service over a three year period and, significantly those responsible for delivery. This clarified where policy evidence and innovation would be required and provided core organisational purpose and alignment. Sadly, it was a short lived experience abandoned by the Cameron government in 2010.

Thirdly, if policy advisors do not have the time to develop long-term evidence based policies then this suggests the need to outsource the role to high quality knowledge institutions. It is simply not good enough for governments to say that they haven’t got the time or resources. We need to use the expertise of our leading academics and if they don’t deliver the right type of research; it should be demanded.

But what does a strategic, innovative, evidence-based policy system look like when you’ve got one? We put this question to our sample of policy officers and the findings are compelling:

  • Where policy professionals have the capacity to act and the competences to understand the choices available to them.
  • A policy system that works beyond the electoral cycle and focuses on long-term issues of national significance.
  • That utilises existing capacity both within and beyond government.
  • That is pro-active to changes in the field of action.
  • Where there is room for experimentation.
  • Where innovation is incentivised.
  • Where the capacity to speak truth to power exists.
  • Where there are clear accountabilities.
  • Where policy is effectively integrated.
  • Where information systems allow for the effective flow of information from the front-line.
  • Where evidence is freely debated and shared.
  • Where better practice is shared.
  • Where there is access to evidence and by implication strong productive working relationships with knowledge institutions.
  • Where there is effective use of innovation intermediaries.
  • Where there are demand and supply-side incentives to engage in evidence based policy-making.

The APS still has a long way to go if it is to achieve this vision of strategic policy capability in Canberra. But crucially the vision will never be achieved without the support, will and direction of the political elite.