Evidence-informed policymaking? The (lack of a) view from the top

Rethinking Policy Impact
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In the huge, interdisciplinary and ever-growing body of research on evidence use in policymaking, there has been a growing focus on qualitative insight into the lived experience of policy work. The rationale is that an ‘inside’ perspective can help to shed important light on the enablers and (more often) barriers to evidence use. This research has shed fascinating light on the perspectives and practices of rank-and-file policy actors – academic experts in civil society, scientific advisers with roles in or adjacent to government, civil servants in public agencies and in departments, even, more latterly, backbench legislators. Largely missing, though, is the view from the very top – the perspectives and practices of leaders in the executive branch, whose priorities and preferences, processes and routines take precedence and ‘set the tone’ for the wider cast of actors involved in policy work. What do they have to say about evidence use in policymaking?

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Some snippets of insight exist, but a recent project has afforded us the chance to investigate this important question much more systematically than ever before. As part of a broader project working with the Institute for Government, we have spent much of the last nine months reading and analysing their unique Ministers Reflect archive. Ministers Reflect is an archive of over 100 ‘exit interviews’ with former Ministers in the UK (the vast majority in Westminster), whose careers span the last 50 years of British government. The interviews centre around the question of ‘what makes an effective Minister’. They are semi-structured in nature, allowing the interview participants space to reflect on the key issues and concerns that exercised them in office. They offer a treasure trove of inside insight into the urgent crises and unique challenges of executive government in contemporary Britain.

Equally as interesting as what Ministers reflect on, however, is what they don’t reflect on. Notably, in relation to the question posed above, there is almost no reflection whatsoever on evidence use in policymaking. Even in a cohort of interview participants that spans the much-vaunted modernisation of government under New Labour, vanishingly few Ministers utter the words evidence, science, data and research, let alone turn to catch-cries like ‘evidence-based policymaking’ or ‘what works’. Despite the extensive rope afforded interview participants, the topic barely comes up.

In fact, the reflections if anything are quite to the contrary of an evidence-informed policymaking agenda. To be clear, most Ministers overall express satisfaction and gratitude with the support they receive from the civil service (especially their private offices) in Whitehall. However, there are some important gripes, emerging sporadically across interviews with Ministers of all eras, parties and demographic characteristics:

  • One is that the advice is often too tentative, staid, or encumbered with equivocation. Many Ministers complain that they are provided no clear argument or narrative to clarify the stakes and underpin the case for investment or reform.
  • A related concern is that civil service advice lacks political savviness. Ministers complain that advice is often not provided or processed in such a way as to help in the execution of their responsibilities in Parliament or the media. Many complain of long briefings of excessive ‘splurge’ that obscure as much as they enlighten, leaving them ill-equipped to defend controversial decisions or anticipate lines of political attack.
  • Another, perhaps more fundamental complaint is that advice is often impractical, abstract or de-contextualised. In particular, Minister bemoan a recycling of old and failed ideas, citing a lack of experiential grounding or historical understanding of a particular portfolio.

Emerging from these reflections is a set of priorities that depart substantially from the aspirations of evidence-informed policymaking. Rather than demanding more sophisticated or rigorous forms of scientific knowledge, Ministers commonly covet something more akin to what policy scholars call ‘practical reason’ or ‘administrative craft’ – expert judgment grounded in an appreciation of political calculations, administrative procedures and conventions, substantive knowledge and institutional memory. 

On the whole, these insights are hardly unexpected. We ought not be surprised that senior politicians prioritise knowledge of the political implications of the evidence they are presented with over its provenance or rigour. Nevertheless, the stark (lack of a) view from the top does help to flesh out our understanding of persistent barriers to (and potential enablers of) evidence use in policy work. In the process, it reinforces important claims stemming from the more qualitative literature on policy practice. It underpins the case for a more reflexive understanding of evidence and its political uses in theory. Specifically, it illustrates that different sorts of actors have different incentives and priorities, and that these differences have important implications for understanding what forms of evidence each values and how that knowledge might best be presented. In this sense, it also supports the case for promoting and investing in the softer skills of policy work in practice for researchers interested in influencing policy. 

Dr John Boswell and Dr Jess Smith, Politics and IR, University of Southampton. Dr John Boswell is Associate Professor in Politics, Deputy Director of the Centre for Citizenship, Globalisation and Governance, University of Southampton. Dr Jess Smith is Lecturer in Politics, University of Southampton

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