Evidence and Policymaking by Oliver Summers

With evidence in drug policy expanding the divide between the coalition parties, and being cited in the resignation letter of Home Office Minister Norman Baker. What is ‘evidence based policy’ and is it worth resigning over?

Evidence based policymaking (EBPM), is an extension of the evidence based medicine ideal into public policy. Evidence is obtained via quantitative research, usually through Randomised Control Trials (RCTs). In an RCT on a new policy intervention, the policy is compared with no intervention, or an existing policy. In this way it is possible to determine statistically if the new intervention works; or works better than the currently used actions.

EBPM found a real resurgence with the New Labour Government, with their 1999 White Paper “Modernising Government” calling for policy to be “shaped by evidence”. Tony Blair’s claim of “what matters is what works” has carried on in some cases into the Coalition Government. A network of ‘What Works’ centres for evidence based practise in social policy fields such as crime reduction, healthy ageing, and education, have been established. The Coalition has also set up the Behavioural Insights team (BIT), or ‘Nudge Unit’ which uses psychological and behavioural research to improve Government policy/services and save money. Their projects have included sending personalised texts to collect more court fines, and finding the right phrase to encourage people to become organ donors.

Not every policy is evidenced based, nor is the evidence used in some cases completely credible or fully formed, despite these arguments usually focusing on evidence as being from academic research. What can be forgotten is that policy processes have to take into account various interplays of power and people, let alone the role of knowledge through evidence. Public opinion or political strategy and feasibility can also be a form of evidence, as exemplified by the interactions within the cited issue of drugs policy.

Research evidence has found that criminalisation of drug use doesn’t have any effect on drug consumption rates. However, to prevent a turn to a technocracy, this evidence shouldn’t take precedent over the evidence of public opinion about concerns of whether drug use would be acceptable in society if drugs were decriminalised. Even if a majority of public opinion held views that sympathised with the suggestions of the evidence, in a democratic society research evidence should be a resource at level pegging with social values/opinions, politics, and ideology in political decision making. Evidence should be used to inform, not dictate, policy and public opinion. This can be where a semantic word change of evidence based policy into evidence informed policy; can be more fitting as it shifts emphasis from technocratic to democratic policymaking.

The policy process isn’t linear or cyclic, it’s messy and complicated, and so policy could never completely be based top-down in research evidence, but it can inform the policy. And policy makers, as MPs and Ministers, are democratically elected and so can be free to pursue or not pursue evidence, whilst we are free to hold them to account whether they do, don’t or misuse it.

So is evidence based policy worth resigning over? The more we focus on it, the more we realise that a method supposedly based in knowledge through quantification-is actually vague and an ideal type, an unrealistic simplification of reality. Paul Cairney critiques the different meanings of EBPM, arguing against the idealistic/prescriptive interpretation by some proponents, and even opponents, of EBPM. Their interpretation is that evidence comes first in a linear top-down policy process, stifling the role for debate and consultation. Cairney suggests an EBPM similar to evidence informed policymaking, in which policymakers have evidence to ‘inform their deliberations whilst also conducting good policymaking to consult widely in order to build a societal, governmental, practitioner consensus’.

So whilst proponents consider what they mean by EBPM, opponents have been arguing against an idealistic definition. More serious concerns if this prescriptive definition takes hold are of evidence policy possibly overriding public preference, undermining democratic participation. There should be room in policymaking for morals, ideas, debates and symbolising motives that can go against the evidence.

Ironically, the evidence on the impact of evidence on policymaking, and whether it makes it better policy needs further study. A good middle ground would be, as Lord Butler of the Better Government Initiative put it “evidence is no substitute for political debate, but it is a good basis for it”. Whether you would resign over it, depends on your idea of evidence based policy.

Referred reading:
Paul Cairney Is Evidence-Based Policymaking the same as good policymaking? http://paulcairney.wordpress.com/2014/02/19/is-evidence-based-policymaking-the-same-as-good-policymaking/
IEA Evidence-based’ policies are damaging UK policymaking http://www.iea.org.uk/in-the-media/press-release/%E2%80%98evidence-based%E2%80%99-policies-are-damaging-uk-policymaking
New Labour and evidence based policy making 1997-2007 http://extra.shu.ac.uk/ppp-online/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/new_labour_evidence_base_1997-2007.pdf
Centre for Evidence based policy and Practise http://www.lgsp.uz/old/publications/option_paper_training/ebp_when_it_came_and_where_it_is_going_eng.pdf
Mark Henderson The Geek Manifesto Chapter 3 http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=lIbbh0DcmfUC&pg=PA45&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=3#v=onepage&q&f=false
Newsnight 30/11/2014 http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b04n6s7k/newsnight-30102014
LSE Negative stereotypes about the policymaking process hinder productive action toward evidence-based policy. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2014/06/02/how-to-get-policymakers-to-use-more-evidence/
Test, Learn, Adapt: Developing Public Policy with Randomised Control Trials https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/62529/TLA-1906126.pdf
Chris Dillow Against Evidence-Based Policy http://stumblingandmumbling.typepad.com/stumbling_and_mumbling/2014/10/against-evidence-based-policy.html
Claire Fox Time for free thinking and irreverent scepticism http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2010/09/29/time-for-free-thinking-and-irreverent-scepticism/

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