Putting evidence at the heart of policymaking

By Carole Willis

Monday 8 May 2017

This blog post first appeared on the CaSE guest blog.

In election debates over the next few weeks, politicians of different hues will be making very different claims about what the evidence says is best for the country (if they draw on the evidence at all).

Finding ways to ensure that evidence is given sufficient weight and fully embedded in policymaking and political discourse is crucial. This may seem like an obvious point, but continues to be a challenge, as this new report from CaSE highlights.

Research and analysis are not the only things that politicians need to take into account when making decisions, but they should certainly be the starting point. Evidence can enable those in positions of power and responsibility to build genuine understanding about the true nature and drivers of pressing social problems, as well as identifying the costs and benefits of alternative solutions to tackling them.

This does, of course, happen to varying degrees in government departments already. The key question is how to ensure that evidence is given appropriate weight in the decision making process. In these times of austerity, one can argue that using evidence is a fundamental requirement for responsible policymaking and the effective use of scarce resources.

Aside from concerns about political expediency, two key issues restrict the use of evidence – limited time (for policy makers to properly engage with and fully understand the evidence) and uncertainty/ ambiguity (the evidence is very rarely black or white).

Trialling new proposals where there is only limited evidence can help establish whether or not these proposals are likely to work, and post-implementation evaluation can help refine approaches and improve their impact and cost-effectiveness. And we should applaud those who, taking note of the evidence, suggest sensible U-turns where policies aren’t having the desired effect.

All this requires a ready supply of data, research and analysis. There is undoubtedly a role for the research community in helping to set the agenda and remind politicians of the questions they ought to be addressing. But researchers inside and outside government need to be alive to the key questions decision makers are facing and target their analysis on providing the answers, if they want to influence outcomes. Research findings also need to be easily accessible and fed in appropriately to the policymaking process.

Recommendations, such as those in CaSE’s report, for ensuring that there is a senior expert (or experts) in each government department responsible for championing the use of evidence are certainly a starting point – and those senior voices can be from a range of analytical professions. The key thing is that they draw on the full range of analytical skills and evidence from different disciplines, including social science, and from experts inside and outside their departments. Most importantly, those senior experts need to be in a trusted position to be able to feed the findings into the right discussions, at the right time, in order for them to have an impact.

It isn’t just politicians who need access to evidence to inform their decisions. Those on the front line of our public services also need evidence to inform their approaches – what teaching approaches work best in improving outcomes for children, what are the best approaches to nursing and healthcare, the best ways of managing policing resources?

As more responsibility is devolved to practitioners and more decisions taken at a local level, different kinds of evidence – and the support to use it effectively – are required. The challenges for busy teachers, nurses, doctors and police staff in finding time to engage with, critically review and use the evidence – without the scale of analytical resources available in government departments – are perhaps even greater than for politicians.

The What Works Centres, and research organisations like the National Foundation for Educational Research, are helping to build, synthesise and disseminate the evidence for both policy makers and practitioners. However, there are still many gaps in our understanding.

Building the evidence base takes time and requires patience, tenacity and a long term commitment to understanding the true nature of complex social problems. Using the evidence base – often in unglamorous ways which don’t hit the headlines – requires bravery, resilience and sound judgement, but will make a positive difference to society.