Sausages, Evidence and the Messiness of Policymaking

Professor Jonathan Grant and Dr Benedict Wilkinson

“Law and sausages”, as Otto von Bismarck famously did not say, “are two things you do not want to see being made”. Much the same might be said of policymaking. Like sausage- and law-making, it is messy, iterative, and little understood. And for those of us who champion the use of evidence in policymaking – which is the central theme that runs through this month’s PolicyWonkers blog, and, more broadly, the work of the Policy Institute at King’s – the messiness inherent to all policymaking is a real challenge.

Indeed, as we see it, part of the appeal of evidence is that it ‘tidies up’ some of the messiness that pervades the policymaking process. To apply the words of David Sackett, one of the pioneers of evidence-based medicine, to a slightly different context: good policymaking should be about “the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence”.

Indeed, this was precisely the idea captured by New Labour in their 1997 Manifesto when they portrayed themselves as “a party of ideas and ideals but not of outdated ideology. What counts is what works”. Nor is this a party political issue: David Cameron, for example, recently introduced the Contestable Policy Fund to “commission high quality advice from outside the Civil Service [and] draw directly on the thinking, evidence and insight of external experts”.

The use of evidence in policymaking is not just happening in the UK. In Canada, probably the second most vociferous advocate for the utility of evidence in policy formulation after the UK, for example, the Canadian Health Services Research Foundation has received federal funding to “provide healthcare policy- and decision-makers with the robust, accessible research they needed to make evidence-informed improvements to healthcare financing, management and delivery”. And although the EU has been somewhat reluctant to extol the virtues of evidence in policymaking, Anne Glover, the EU’s Chief Scientific Advisor, recently called for “a new system of evidence gathering within the Commission that entirely disconnects evidence gathering with the political imperative” and advocated for the creation of a department in the EU whose sole purpose is to examine policy proposals against the best available evidence*.

The growing acknowledgment of – and advocacy for – the use of evidence in policymaking is, in our view, a good thing. But it is balanced by a certain cynicism about what government can actually achieve. A recent poll conducted by Populus on behalf of the Institute for Government, for instance, concluded that “two-thirds of the public say they would be more likely to vote for a party that demonstrates how it would implement its manifesto pledges… But few (only 15%) are confident that parties know how they will fulfil their promises in government.” The fatalistic view, whether from government or the voters, that ‘nothing works’ is dangerous and one that needs to be challenged. Champions of “the conscientious, explicit and judicious use” of evidence in policymaking need to up our game.

For us, this means two things. First we need to understand and acknowledge that ‘evidence’ is just one ingredient in the policymaking process: habit, resources, values, ‘marketability’ and politics all, for example, legitimately impinge on that way policy is made – and, arguably, should be made. From this perspective, one role that evidence can and does play is to help reduce the uncertainty – the messiness – inherent to policy and decision-making.

But that is not to say this is the only role that evidence can play. And this is our second point: we need to accept that there has been a failure to bridge the so-called ‘gap’ between research and policy. In our view, this needs to be combatted by adopting new paradigms for engagement and exploring innovative ways of working. A recent systematic review of the barriers to – and facilitators of – the use of evidence by policymakers suggests that little has changed over the past decade: timely access to good quality and relevant research evidence, collaborations between researchers and policymakers, relationship and skill-building with policymakers – these are the factors that continue to be the most important in influencing the use of evidence.

But bearing in mind the still relatively meagre role played by evidence in the process, the fact that little has changed suggests that our current models are broken. We need to explore new ways of engaging with policymakers: developing communities of practice, employing the concept of ‘nudging’ from behavioural economics, and, most importantly, creating a ‘marketplace’ for evidence that includes demand-side incentives.

At the Policy Institute at King’s we have been reflecting on ‘what works’ in maximizing the impact of academic research on policy and practice.  Learning from the research on evidence-based policymaking we have recently refreshed our strategy where we have organised ourselves around three themed activities: mobilizing impact; building partnerships and delivering analysis. Our mission is to improve evidence-informed policy by facilitating mutual engagement between academic, business and policy communities around current and future policy needs. This blog is one part of that strategy: each month, we will invite four individuals to write short, ‘chatty’ posts that communicate their evidence-based policy ideas across a broad range of topics – from social care to Europe.  We very much hope that you have enjoyed this post – and will continue to read the blog in the future.

*Three days after this post was published, the European Commission announced it was scrapping the post of Chief Scientific Advisor; for champions of evidence-based policy, as we are, this is a great disappointment, and we hope that this is not part of a wider and negative attitude towards the role of evidence in policy in the EU.