Blog |Evidence-based Policymaking, A Double-edged Sword?

Blog |Evidence-based Policymaking, A Double-edged Sword?

The potentiality and limitations of the role of evidence on decision-making in policy formulation

By Pau Sicat

In light of the recent rapid changes happening around the world due to COVID-19, many are arguing that adopting a purely evidence-based policymaking approach is required. That it has become more crucial than ever that evidence and science should be guiding the government response. For most, it would be easy to presume the role of evidence in policymaking taking centre-stage. That policy actors, such as politicians or even institutions, could simply make decisions based on scientifically-backed data provided to them by experts. However, this is an oversimplification of the role that evidence plays in the decision-making process under normal circumstances.

Ian Anderson defined evidence-based policymaking as “policy initiatives that are to be supported by research evidence, and that policies introduced on a trial basis are to be evaluated in as rigorous a way as possible.” [1] Presumably, the more high quality and scientifically-proven evidence there is to support and inform the decision-making of policy makers during the policymaking process, the efficient and effective the policy outcomes.

But, because of the realities of the complex nature of institutions and policy actors, the notion of evidence-based policymaking being prioritised remains contested, despite the potential enhancements it could offer to the system.


An evidence-based approach to decrease the frequency of policy failures

In practice, policy failures happen more often than one might think, often as a result of the complex and intricate processes that define policy making. It’s an incredibly difficult task to balance and find a compromise between competing interests within the political arena. An evidence-based approach could potentially improve the policymaking process by making it easier for policy makers to manage and prioritise those varying interests effectively. However, with the abundance of accessible information we have at our disposal today, the sources of policy failures point to the lack of effective management of it all. According to Michael Howlett, the following are multiple sources of policy failures that are often mentioned in academic literature [2]:

  • “Un-addressable problems” refer to complex issues such as climate change which require highly organised collective action among multiple governments across the globe
  • Governmental failure to anticipate the consequences of their decisions from ineffective evaluation of the policy processes and potential outcomes
  • Failure to learn the appropriate lessons from their own or other government’s previous experiences

The sources of policy failures highlight the mismatch between government expectations and actual real-life conditions, and it begs the question of the role of analytical policy capacity concerning evidence-based policymaking. 


Policy analytical capacity as a pre-condition for effective evidence-based policymaking

The term “policy analytical capacity” refers to the systemic arrangements put in place by the government to ensure that policies are working as they should. They make sure that the government has the ability or resources to carry out evidence-based policymaking. [2] 

Policy capacity also opens up opportunities for greater policy learning, or in other words, gaining knowledge of policies used in other countries. It is when decision makers compare and contrast current problems to previous problems within their own, or other jurisdictions, who they believe to represent the optimal practice to resolving an issue. Knowledge acquisition from other jurisdictions enables the government to look at policies that may be successful in other countries and then apply it to their own. It’s despite the different political, cultural or societal context the policy is in, the government can evaluate which aspects of those policies are successful in their particular context and why they succeed in that context. [3] Assuming there is sufficient scientifically-backed evidence and knowledge gained through policy learning, governments could transfer a policy from another country and implement it in their own by using acquired data to recontextualise successful policies to fit within their jurisdictions. However, this is a difficult process that as said, requires sufficient evidence and knowledge, and will always be limited in ability to be directly transferred. Policy analytical capacity requires governments to routinely evaluate their resources to identify possible gaps in their system. This task is already quite challenging in itself, it remains the determining factor of a government’s ability to implement an evidence-based approach in public policy more effectively.


The practical implications of incorporating an evidence-based approach to policymaking

It is easy to assume that adopting evidence-based policy could potentially help policy actors make better and more rational policy decisions. This approach has its limitations despite providing more evidence. Evidence-based policymaking is more difficult in practice because of the numerous policy actors, such as interest groups, who contribute resources or evidence towards the policymaking process. It is likely for these policy actors to have different sources of evidence on a particular issue. The varying, and perhaps conflicting, outcomes may have a detrimental impact on the overall efficiency and effectiveness on the policymaking process. This is due to the difficulties policy makers may face having to confront and choose between multiple sources of information and knowledge to draw their decisions from carefully.

According to Tim Tenbensel’s observations on his research on New Zealand’s evidence-based policy within the health sector, “The process of evidence gathering is thought of as a process of gradual accumulation; the more evidence collected, the more complete the overall picture that policy makers have to work with. It would be more prudent to assume that the relationship between different types of evidence in the policy process is incoherent and potentially conflictual.” [4] Although, it is often possible for governments to carry out experimental evaluations in order to figure out which evidence or policies work best within the context of a particular jurisdiction, it is crucial to acknowledge the prevalent issue of having sufficient government funding at hand to carry out expensive evaluations. It may be possible to deem the costs would justify its benefits, but there is then the question of who makes those decisions and what benefits are decided upon. As perfectly described by Peter Ridell, “[evidence-based policymaking] requires a recognised requirement or demand for research; a supply of qualified researchers; ready availability of quality data; policies and procedures to facilitate productive interactions with other researchers; and a culture in which openness is encouraged and risk taking is acceptable.” [5] 

The demands that come with adopting a policymaking system that is wholly reliant on evidence-based decision making is, in turn, reliant on the policy capacity of a government. Such as the labour of policy actors in charge of gathering, managing and evaluating the abundance of evidence produced, which can become costly and highly time-consuming in an already complex policymaking process. Evidence-based policymaking is no doubt valuable, and can be incredibly successful in achieving desired outcomes, but consideration needs to always be given to how these decisions are happening.


Cited Sources

[1] Anderson, Ian. “Evaluation, Policy Learning and Evidence-based Policy Making”. Public Administration 80, no. 1 (2002) 1-22.

[2] Howlett, Michael. “Policy analytical capacity and evidence-based policymaking: Lessons from Canada”. Canadian Public Administration 52, no. 2 (2009): 153-175.

[3] Anderson, Ian. “Intelligent Policy Making for a Complex World: Pragmatism, Evidence and Learning”. Political Studies 57 (2009): 699-719.

[4] Tenbensel, Tim. “Does more evidence lead to better policy? The implications of Explicit Priority-Setting in New Zealand’s Health Policy for Evidence-based Policy”. Policy Studies 25, no. 3 (2004) 190.

[5] Howlett, Michael. “Policy analytical capacity and evidence-based policymaking: Lessons from Canada”. Canadian Public Administration 52, no. 2 (2009): 153-175.


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