Importance of evidence in a post-truth world

By Julie Nelson and Claudia Sumner

Friday 16 June 2017

First of a three-part blog series on evidence-informed policymaking.

Following a bruising election campaign, which saw an ideological fight seldom witnessed in British politics, the Prime Minister and her ministers must get down to the business of policy-making.

The battle of ideas is necessarily driven in part by principle, but principles are all too often wielded at the expense of integrity or objectivity. Recent political developments, on both sides of the Atlantic, have seen the rebuttal, even dismissal, of evidence by politicians, in favour of highly-charged statements with supposed emotional appeal. So striking have these developments been that the term “post-truth” was declared word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries in 2016. For organisations such as the NFER, which develops and supports the use of evidence for effective educational policy and practice, this is troubling.

In a recent blog for CaSE (the Campaign for Science and Engineering), NFER’s Chief Executive, Carole Willis, comments that “finding ways to ensure that evidence is given sufficient weight and fully embedded in policymaking and political discourse is crucial.” In their recent report, CaSE argued that the most successful policies develop at the intersection between politics; evidence; and delivery. However, achieving this triangulation is complex, with the “evidence” element of the equation often overlooked. This was demonstrated in a 2015 report by the Institute for Government, which showed a lack of consistency and transparency in the use of evidence across government departments. As David Halpern commented in the introduction: “policy was more often ‘evidence-sprayed’ than ‘evidence-based’”.

So, what should our politicians do?

First – ensure that evidence (research; statistical data; consultation responses; stakeholder views etc.) is the starting point in policy formulation – we need our policy makers and those who guide them to be knowledgeable and informed. Evidence has the potential to illuminate decision-making and to identify benefits, challenges and cost implications.

Second – be open-minded to what the evidence, and those that understand it, says. Policy that evolves mindful of the evidence is more likely to be successful than initiatives which look for (a fig leaf of) supporting evidence at the end of the development process. Key leadership organisations such as ASCL have committed to adopting an evidence-informed approach, and call on government to do the same.

Third – take a leaf out of the practice book. While there is still a way to go, education professionals in schools are increasingly recognising the value of evidence-informed teaching and learning. The new Chartered College of Teaching is committed to “enabling teachers to connect with rigorous research and evidence”; The Education Endowment Foundation’s Research Schools, a focal-point for evidence-based practice in their regions, are expanding in numbers; and researchED, a grass-roots, teacher-led organisation, aims to improve teacher research literacy and to “dismantle myths in education”.

Since 2014, seven Government ‘What Works’ centres have been operating in a range of policy areas, including education, early years, health and crime. They are ‘based on the principle that good decision-making should be informed by the best available evidence’ and their purpose is to ‘encourage’ policy makers to take account of research.

British policy makers have no time to waste if we are to keep up with our European neighbors, particularly in relation to the crucial areas of education policy and skills. It is vital that we look to the research to consider the likely impact of policy initiatives before they are implemented.

Read part 2 of the series ‘Keeping up with the Jönses: European mechanisms for evidence-informed policymaking’ here.