We still need ‘experts’: evidence translation in practice

JoIngold_MarkMonaghan2Jo Ingold and Mark Monaghan

This blog post is based on the authors’ article, Evidence translation: an exploration of policy makers’ use of evidence, which won the 2016 prize for the best article in Policy & Politics and is free to access until 15 June 2017.

The role of evidence in policy making, and whether evidence-based policy can ever be a reality, has attracted much debate, both inside and outside academia. In our article on what we refer to as ‘evidence translation’, we try to grapple with these issues. Our academic interest in this area stemmed from research we had conducted separately on similar themes (the role of evidence in policy making), but from different traditions and persuasions. Ingold had focused on ideas relating to ‘policy transfer’ in welfare to work, comparing Denmark with the UK. By contrast, Monaghan had concentrated efforts on understanding the standing of evidence in policy debates often seen, by critics, to be evidence free – in this case the area of UK drug policy. Our substantive areas were not a hindrance to our partnership. Instead, we were very much enthralled by some commentaries in the journal Policy & Politics (and elsewhere) that suggested that both evidence-based policy and policy transfer were fundamentally concerned with the same process, but were literatures that had emerged separately. It was, we felt, a hypothesis worth exploring, but more than that we quickly arrived at the conclusion that there was much to be learned by each literature from the other.

It was as these ideas were formulating in our minds that in the summer of 2012, we were asked to visit the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to undertake work on the use of evidence in policy by policy officials and analysts and to try to understand their motivations for doing so. As we highlight in our article, the DWP seemed a good place to explore this issue. Under New Labour, it had seen an exponential increase in its evaluation infrastructure (during this time Ingold had worked in the Department as an analyst). It has also been at the forefront of initiatives and policies that will be remembered as the hallmarks of the Coalition and pre-Brexit Conservative administrations. In terms of evidence based policy making, it has been criticised on more than one occasion by the UK Statistics Authority for its ‘misuse’ of statistics.

The history of the commentary on the relationship between the evidence and policy communities reveals that the connection is one of ups and downs. It is tumultuous, or in the words of Robert Merton (echoing Thomas Hobbes), it is nasty, brutish and short. By 2012, the flushes of enthusiasm that had greeted New Labour’s espousal of evidence-based policy making (with the important caveat that this was never fully realised) had given way to long-held beliefs that evidence was always a matter of expediency. In reality, politicians would always tend towards using evidence to support pre-existing stances, rather than to challenge accepted wisdom.

In this atmosphere we decided to find out what the policy officials, analysts (social researchers, statisticians and economists) thought. This hard-to-access group are rarely discussed in the literature. 2012 was a critical time of the rollout of Universal Credit and debates over the Coalition government’s flagship welfare to work initiative the ‘Work Programme’ were in full swing. This was a different time. Although not as revered as in previous years, there was still a sense of belief in the principles of evidence-based policy making, but also a pervading sense of resignation that research was stage managed by politicians rather than given free expression.

The fallout from Brexit puts a new perspective on this research. The backlash against experts in the EU referendum encapsulated by Michael Gove’s admonishing of their value and his erstwhile colleague Glyn Davis’ questioning academic’s experience of the real world, alongside the widespread scepticism of bureaucracies that was the hallmark of the referendum debate seems in contrast to our, albeit, short-lived experience with our research participants. They were critical thinkers, deeply committed to better policy making. Although they fully recognised the constraints on the use of evidence to inform and improve the policy-making process, they were keen to utilise (and to leverage) opportunities to contribute good, robust evidence at any point of the process. However, they also recognised that the ‘zeitgeist’ at any point in time can mean that some evidence (and particular dimensions of a policy problem) were less likely to gain ground than at another time. In our article we point to the importance of actors such as policy officials and analysts as critical ‘translators’ in the ‘evidence translation’ process.

In our article, we talk about the ‘enlightenment’ model of research utilisation, in which evidence provides conceptual tools to policy makers to aid their decision-making but rarely, if ever, shapes it directly. Our critique of the enlightenment model is that, although offering a potentially promising opportunity for evidence to influence policy, it gives little consideration to the role that other factors can drive policy making. This includes the role of different actors involved at each stage of the policy making process. Good policy making is not just about crunching numbers, running algorithms and churning out statistics, as the debates about ‘experts’ and ‘post-truth’ may suggest. Rather, it is about synthesising (quantitative and qualitative) evidence from a range of sources to contribute to a good evidence base, in a world of complex and interlinked policy problems. It is therefore critical that analysts from different academic perspectives continue to be a significant presence in the UK Civil Service. It is also crucial that these translators continue to contribute evidence into the policy making process, regardless of whether this is in line, or in contradiction to, the zeitgeist.

Jo Ingold is a Lecturer in Human Resource Management and Public Policy at Leeds University Business School

Mark Monaghan is a Lecturer in Criminology and Social Policy at Loughborough University

If you enjoyed this blog post you may also be interested to read Making the case for the welfare state by Peter Taylor-Gooby.

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