ARCHIVE: Evidence-based policy making
These pages aim to give an overview of what 'evidence based policy-making' is, what it means in practice, and to explain what Defra is doing to embed it in its working practices.
What is "evidence based policy making"?
The key benefit of evidence-based policymaking is better policy. The recent increase in interest in evidence-based policy making comes in response to a perception that Government needs to improve the quality of decision-making (ref Modernising Government White Paper, G2000, G2006, etc.). Many critics argued in the past that policy decisions were too often driven by inertia or by short-term political pressures.
There are many different definitions of the term "evidence based policy making" but we use it to refer to an approach to policy development and implementation which uses rigorous techniques to develop and maintain a robust evidence base from which to develop policy options. All policies are based on evidence - the question is more whether the evidence itself, and the processes through which this evidence is put to turn it into policy options, are of sufficiently high quality.
Why is an evidence-based approach to policy making important?
The 1999 Modernising Government white paper noted that Government "must produce policies that really deal with problems, that are forward-looking and shaped by evidence rather than a response to short-term pressures; that tackle causes not symptoms". In short, it is about making sure that Defra's policies are based on a sound and comprehensive understanding of the evidence available at the time; and developing a strategy to maintain, and update as necessary, the evidence base for future strategy and policy.
Decisions are influenced by a wide variety of factors (including Ministers' values, experience and political judgement). This means that even in individual policy areas the evidence base must be both broad enough to develop a wide range of policy options, and detailed enough for those options to stand up to intense scrutiny. Thus an evidence-based approach should clearly show the line of sight between horizon scanning, strategy, policy, and delivery.
What is "evidence?"
When we think of evidence we tend to think of hard facts. In a policy-making context, it is easy to think of it in the same way - like statistical data or scientific knowledge; but evidence is more than that.
We can say that evidence is any information that Defra can use to turn its policy goals into something concrete, achievable and manageable . It can take many forms: research, analysis of stakeholder opinion, economic and statistical modelling, public perceptions and beliefs, anecdotal evidence, and cost/benefit analyses; as well as a judgement of the quality of the methods that are used to gather and synthesise the information.
Evidence for policy is has three components. First is hard data (facts, trends, survey information) but the second component is the analytical reasoning that sets the hard data in context. Third, an evidence base comprises stakeholder opinion on an issue or set of issues. The reason for this tripartite approach is: if there is any weakness in the hard data on which you are basing a policy option, then you will need to fall back upon the analysis that underpins the data. If there is any weakness in the analysis, or any risk that others could bring an alternative interpretation to the table, then you need to go back to your stakeholder base in order to understand the different interpretations that could give rise to different analyses of the same set of data.
What constitutes an evidence-based approach?
Many have attempted to define what an evidence-based approach is. The Cabinet Office's Better Policy Making (2001) identified an evidence based approach to policy development as one which:
- Reviewed existing research
- Commissions new research
- Consults experts and / or uses internal and external consultants
- Considers a wide range of properly costed and appraised options.
In Defra we have interpreted this using the following diagram which explicitly recognises that there are both long- and short-term pressures to which policy makers need to respond.
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last modified: 26 January 2011
Page published: 21 September 2006