Why evidence-based policy is political 

SimonsArno Simons

The idea that public policy should be informed by scientific knowledge has great appeal. There is a growing understanding among politicians, the media and the public that decision making—especially on complex issues such as climate change and biodiversity—must include a scientific evaluation of the underlying problems and the available solutions. The reasoning is that, without science, public policies are most likely doomed to be irrational or ideological or both. To dissociate themselves from such “bad policy making” and to express their commitment to science in the policy process, policy makers and analysts have come to adopt the slogan “evidence-based policy” (EBP).

While embracing EBP may sound like a no-brainer, there are serious problems. It’s a major irony of EBP that the movement around it tends to ignore not only the politics of policy making (which others have already criticised) but also its own political stance, which we call the politics behind EBP. With regard to the former, it is utterly flawed to believe that science could ever replace politics and ideology in policy making. If politics is the process in which members of society negotiate their different interests, values, and yes ideologies—potentially to strike durable compromises on important matters—then why should we want to get away from politics in the first place? Public policies, no matter how they are arrived at, are per definition meant to affect the public. By shaping the opportunities of people and the relations among them, public policies inevitably create winners and losers, and they will always advance certain agendas at the expense of others. Democracy implies that individual members of society, because they are affected by collective decisions, have a right to express and fight for their interests, values, and ideologies—regardless of whether science is on their side or not. To complicate matters, even if we were to strip away politics from policy making in a thought experiment, science could never fill the void. As we have just witnessed in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, science itself often becomes politicised, especially where it is surrounded by uncertainty and provisionality. EBP therefore is constantly at risk of flipping over and becoming “policy-based evidence”.

Against this background, the politics—and yes ideology—behind EBP can be carved out along three lines. First, EBP is political precisely because it downplays, and thereby masks, the politics of policy making. Second, EBP tends to advance a very specific understanding of science, one that prioritises certain forms of “evidence” over others, such as quantitative data over qualitative data, positivist frameworks over constructivist frameworks, and instrumentality over critique. Both of these points have already been well-stated by others. What we add to the discussion in our recent article, “The neglected politics behind evidence-based policy. Shedding light on instrument constituency dynamics ”, is a third point, namely that EBP is political also because it is pushed as a particular agenda by a collective political agency that we call its “instrument constituency”. The latter consists of scientists, policy analysts, consulting agencies, and politicians who define EBP in ways that allows them to carve out a professional or ideological niche for themselves, for example as evidence providers, evidence educators, or simply “better” politicians. To market EBP, the constituency engages in a phenomenon called “problem chasing”, meaning that it searches for new problems on which to plug its solution. As we show in our article, EBP was first applied to health policy but was quickly transferred to other policy domains, also as a means for certain actor groups, such as statisticians and providers of systematic reviews, to widen their scope of influence.

To conclude, we sound a note of caution: don’t get us wrong! We are neither claiming that policy making should go without science nor that EBP is inherently bad. Science is a key pillar of our societies and should therefore have a firm place in the policy process. But it cannot do away with politics or ideology, and it shouldn’t even try. EBP, as flawed as it may be, can provide important encouragement to integrate some forms of evidence in the policy process. But it should be taken for what it is: a political agenda for a specific vision of science in politics, not as a self-evident theory of policy making.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Simons, Arno; Schniedermann, Alexander (2021) ‘The neglected politics behind evidence-based policy: shedding light on instrument constituency dynamics[Open Access]Policy & Politics, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1332/030557321X16225469993170

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

A new epistemology of evidence-based policy

Does knowledge brokering facilitate evidence-based policy? A review of existing knowledge and an agenda for future research [Open Access]

Is it time to give up on evidence-based policy? Four answers

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