Evidence and policy: what we need is a more intelligent politics



A new special edition of the Academy of Social Sciences’ journal Contemporary Social Science focuses on international insights into the relationship between evidence and policy, with examples from countries including Australia, India, Estonia and Italy.

The importance of context

Politicians commonly cite comparative evidence to support their policy proposals but without paying enough attention to historical or cultural factors. More research is needed on whether policy solutions might, or might not, be effective if transferred across time and space. Of course, evidence has been fundamental to public health since at least the 19th Century and controversy about the right relationship between evidence and policy is lively in Britain today. The evidence-based approach was boosted by New Labour who introduced the mantra ‘What works?’  The Coalition Government in 2013 set up What Works Centres, arguing that ‘all too often evidence is not presented in a simple, relevant format that enables it to be used to its maximum potential by service providers, commissioners and policy makers’. The idea was to spread the approach developed in medicine and implemented by NICE to other areas of social policy.

Barriers to evidence in policy

We now know quite a lot about the barriers to getting evidence taken seriously in social policy-making. There can be problems with the quality of evidence –perhaps from a reluctance to use RCT methods.

Evidence is often inconclusive and policy implications uncertain. The range of disciplines may be too narrow, excluding criminology or history with too much weight being given to bio-medicine and economics.

Some argue that not only scientific evidence but also experiential evidence should be looked at, from those affected by a condition or practitioners working on the ground. Others point to variation in the availability of evidence on different topics:  there is more evidence on interventions to modify individual behaviour than on those tackling social, economic and environmental determinants.  http://heapro.oxfordjournals.org/content/19/2/137.full

Where evidence is contradictory, it is easy for governments to do nothing or to base their policies on ‘passionate’ beliefs or to be tempted by the snake-oil charms of travelling policy entrepreneurs. There can be problems with how and when evidence is presented. Research results often come in too late – timeliness is of the essence for policy. Academic jargon is criticized by politicians, civil servants and journalists. This can sometimes be solved by routing evidence through think-tanks who seem more adept in presenting findings in a style appreciated by decision-makers.  The most commonly reported barriers to influence are lack of personal contact, research not being timely or relevant, mutual mistrust, and power and budget struggles. The tendency is therefore for selective use of research evidence, partly influenced by the need to match evidence to the agendas of Ministers.

What about politics?

Many efforts to promote evidence-based policy are largely about taking the heat out of discussions, in effect taking the politics out of the policy-making process. This seems to point to a fundamental disquiet with the processes of decision-making – a feeling that ideology is replacing sound analysis.  But this should not mean removing decisions from the democratic process, handing them over to so-called neutral experts. Many issues are inherently contested, reflecting competing values and interests. As LSHTM alumnus Elisabeth Pisani put it, ‘Science does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in a world of money and votes, a world of media enquiry and lobbyists, of pharmaceutical, manufacturing and environmental activism and religions and political ideologies and all the other complexities of human life’ (2008: 5).

One response is to become an activist, not just producing but also mobilising evidence. The task is to reframe the terms of debate, the way we talk about problems, as has been done successfully on issues like consumption of salt, sugar, tobacco or alcohol, or regarding child sexual exploitation.

So the main barriers to utilising evidence in the policy process may lie not so much with the scientists, with the nature of the evidence or the interactions between evidence and policy, as in the diminished character of our politics. Policy issues are too often simplified, presented as either/ or choices. The media as the key public forum and source of information, with its sound-bite culture, is a hindrance, especially with its 24 hour news cycle, dominant blame culture and sensational personification of issues. The researcher or practitioner who says things are complex does not get a hearing. The adversarial structuring of debate and the lack of respect for professionals all add to the problem. What is needed above all is to admit the complexity of knowledge and recognise the need for reflective and deliberative processes of decision-making. The need is to strengthen representative democracy not circumvent it.

Susanne MacGregor