Evidence-based policy discourse: a policy about policy

Policy must be based on evidence. That is the cornerstone of development and poverty studies, and a discourse adopted by almost all think tanks and organisations that conduct research in these fields. Andries du Toit makes the case that evidence-based policy discourse (EBP) is normative: it is about what policy should be; the desirable relationships between evidence and policy; what the appropriate conduct is for researchers and policymakers. In short, it makes political decisions about what counts as evidence. While this discourse presents itself as a technocratic model in which science and data ensure that policy is correct and appropriate, leaving aside political or ideological interferences, far from being apolitical, this discourse is a meta-political project, a “policy about policy”.

Du Toit places the emergence of EBP discourse to the rise of new Labour in Britain, as a reaction against Thatcherite anti-intellectualism. Its ideological and political roots are what give the EBP discourse its technocratic nature. It has since been largely transmitted through the UK Department for International Development and is now widely accepted and adopted in social science research institutions worldwide. In EBP discourse, policymaking is only concerned with instrumental rationality; it assumes that there is a right answer for every policy question. It believes that the choice between policy alternatives can be based on impartial, objective and rational assessments of evidence. Furthermore, experts must play a central role in obtaining the evidence and communicating it to policymakers.

It is certainly desirable for policy to be informed by social science, but there are assumptions regarding the role of evidence and science that can be problematic. One objection to the EBP discourse is that it can be antidemocratic if it is used to make social matters the prerogative of unaccountable elites and technocratic “experts”. Another concern is that while the EBP discourse may work in a highly capacitated, Weberian bureaucracy, this may not be the case in developing countries where the state is weak and technocratic efficiency coexists with nationalist projects.

Du Toit points out that the most worrying assumption is that EBP discourse’s conceptualisation of evidence can be considered as naïve empiricism:

It assumes that understanding social reality is in the first place a matter of understanding the evidence; that the clarity, adequacy and accuracy of this understanding depends primarily on having enough (or the right) evidence; that the more evidence you have, the better; that valid findings are primarily guaranteed by objective, value free analysis; that natural science is the best model of the kind of objectivity and rigour needed; and that informing social policy is ultimately a matter of scientists (or intermediaries who understand the science) presenting and communicating what the evidence ‘says’ as clearly, simply and unambiguously as possible.

Evidence never speaks for itself. There are discursive practices that infuse certain findings, experiences and events with significance, which allow them to function as evidence. These same practices can render other events and data as unimportant or irrelevant. Even more importantly, both policymakers and researchers rely on underlying interpretative paradigms, which are what frame policy debates as policy narratives compete against each other. Evidence is often complex and politically contested, something that is left aside by the EBP discourse.

It is not evidence per se that creates decisions but rather the ever shifting paradigms that interpret it. This is why in some cases policy that is heavily based on evidence fails to succeed: the way it is presented does not fit in with its intended audience’s paradigm.

Du Toit believes that social scientists must abandon the idea that social science can provide a neutral space beyond politics, in which evidence can be looked at without an ideological tint. This can lead to a more sophisticated approach to the task of ensuring that policy is not just informed by evidence, but by an understanding of social change and process.