Reliance on Emotions and Hunches: Evidence Based Policy

Since 2015, evidence based policymaking (EBP) has become a key focus for many UK government bodies, where researchers are being tasked with helping to bridge the evidence-policy gap.  In hot policy topics like energy, policymakers are being scrutinised over making ideological rather than evidence based decisions[1].  However, from the other side, experts must also understand how policymaking works, and adjust their own thinking in order to help policymakers understand and embrace an EBP approach.

As Paul Cairney, the University of Stirling’s Professor of politics and public policy writes, in order for EBP to work “requires us to reject two romantic notions: first, that policymakers will ever think like scientists; and second, that there is a clearly identifiable point of decision at which scientists can contribute evidence to make a demonstrable impact.”

In other words, the burden falls on researchers to learn how the policy making process works, and to help to inject their evidence into the system in the way that has the greatest impact.

One of the main obstacles that must be overcome for academic and political processes to work together, is a marked difference in timescales.  In general, policymakers are constrained by time; they must work quickly and can only gather limited information before they make decisions.  This can cause a reliance on emotions and hunches to help make decisions faster.

Researchers instead focus on the gathering of data, the analysis of it, and then the presentation of it in a form that is understandable to policymakers and people out with their field.  In the scientific world, how long something takes can be deemed unimportant when high quality results are produced at the end of the process.

Since the policy cycle revolves much more quickly than the research cycle, the use of EBP has turned increasingly to assessment of previous policies, and reviews of the results of current policies, rather than in the development of new ones.

So, while we have highlighted what does not work, and where the gulf lies – we have not established how to bridge it.  As Paul Cairney wrote: “Only by engaging with the practical and ethical dilemmas that the policy process creates for advocates of evidence, can we produce strategies that are better suited to a complex real world.”  Engagement is the key in every step of the process on both sides.

So how do we get them engaged?  Removing the barriers and working together is easier said than done, but it is far from impossible.  Businesses face the same issue when identifying and initiating projects where stakeholders and implementers sit on opposite sides of a gulf – but they tackle it in a simple way.  They begin projects by establishing an understanding on both sides of the result that the project is intended to produce, then set mutually agreed timelines and designing meaningful measures that help both sides to engage with the process.

If EBP can apply the same engagement techniques used in the corporate world, and help policy makers to understand the researchers’ process, and the stage they are at, then perhaps they can benefit from the same successes that businesses can achieve.


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