What’s the evidence on Evidence Informed Policy Making?

[Editor’s note: This post was written by Andrew Clappison, Communication Manager at CommsConsult and Programme Manager of Research to Action.]


One of the key indicators of policy influence is ‘framing debates’ (Jones and Villar, 2008) and there is no doubt that the narratives around whether and how development policy makes use of evidence have shifted enormously in the last five years.

Take, for example, the phrase ‘evidence-based policy’. It has all but disappeared, in favour of ‘evidence-informed policy’ (EIPM).  One reason for the shift in terminology is in recognition of the fact that evidence is often most appropriately applied in combination with other knowledge linked to local contexts, cultures and beliefs.

The debates surrounding EIPM are growing more visible by the day. This interest has been a long time coming, and is very welcome not least because of the massive potential it has to positively influence development outcomes.  Few would argue that decisions are better made without good evidence to underpin them.

However, there is no absolute consensus on how evidence should inform policy. What should be the balance of effort by those on the evidence ‘supply side’ e.g. researchers, NGOs with experiential knowledge etc. to communicate their work effectively to their target audience? What are the roles and responsibilities of the users of evidence i.e. those on the ‘demand side’ who are making important decisions in both policy and practice? And what about all the actors ‘in the middle’ e.g. information intermediaries and knowledge brokers, and their function as important activists in bridging the knowledge gap?

The fact is that as a community we still know very little about what the most effective practice is in this area, and although we have history of practice on the ‘supply-side’, very little is known about the factors that influence the demand-side.

It is an enormous and rather delicious irony that the new policy focus on evidence-informed policy does not have a strong evidence-base underpinning it. It is vital as a community that we can both locate and make use of the evidence that would help us better explain and inform the world of EIPM.

A diversity of themes

One of the key challenges in bringing together this evidence is the diversity of relevant themes that fall under the concept of evidence-informed policy and the different relevant initiatives. We need to build a stronger evidence-base on what kinds of interventions increase demand for and use of research evidence and lead to improved policy quality, and the factors that promote and constrain evidence-informed policy. Other important questions also exist around how to best enhance the skills of public policy workers, the role of capacity building in promoting individual behaviour and organisational change, while also increasing the demand for and use of evidence in policy.

BCURE Evaluation evidence review: Help us put the jigsaw together

A DFID-funded initiative that I’m involved in is seeking to bring together and understand more fully what evidence exists on Evidence Informed Policy Making in order to provide a basis for the evaluation of DFID’s flagship BCURE programme. The project aims to build the capacity of policy makers in low- and middle-income countries to use research evidence more effectively in decision-making.

An Evidence Review will be developed that will provide a practical resource summarising existing knowledge about how to promote evidence-informed policy making among decision makers.  The hope is that this will prove useful not only to DFID but to a wide range of actors around the world working on these issues.  The review seeks to bring together literature from both within and beyond the international development field (we’re also interested in learning lessons from e.g. health, political science and governance, adult education, public administration and management, and social marketing).

We have six core research questions that we need help with (outlined below), so if you are aware of any academic or grey literature that speaks to these (whether in the development context or not we would love to hear from you). You can either leave your suggestions as a comment or contact me directly via the email:

  1. What factors can promote and constrain evidence-informed policy making in public sector environments?
  2. What factors lead to professional skills and/or knowledge being acquired by public sector workers through teaching and training?
  3. How and in what circumstances can capacity-building interventions promote individual behaviour change within organisations?
  4. How and in what circumstances can capacity-building interventions promote organisational, network and institutional change?
  5. How and in what circumstances can capacity-building interventions increase the demand for and use of evidence in policy making?
  6. How and in what circumstances can interventions that increase demand for and use of research evidence lead to improved policy quality?

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Andrew, what you are trying to produce will certainly be of use and value for many of us interested in better understanding how to work with policymakers to promote the use of evidence within quite chaotic and complex decision making processes. It is time we begin to question more what we are doing and how we are doing it. A review like this one is going to yield interesting food for thought (and hopefully action too!) for many of us so please share once it is done!

    However, my personal impression after beginning our first serious attempt at P&I to work on what is called the demand side, I feel we need a 180 shift in terms of how we are framing our efforts. My preliminar conclusion right now is that we need them, the policymakers, at the driving seat. I am interested in learning more from what they know, what they think about research and evidence in general, how they deal with the sort of circumstances that you mention that have been addressed in the literature (role of politics and partisanship, factors like corruption or decision making dynasties as Anne Lan Candelaria has so effectively argued in this post:

    I think that we are theoretically aware of many of these factors (this does not mean that a good systematisation will not help!) but we have not been effective in terms of assessing how to deal with them. My take is that if we want to promote more use of evidence in policy making there are two crucial strategies that need to be deployed:

    1. Partner with policymakers in this effort. Let´s bring them on to share their views, their experience, their own thinking on how this could work. At P&I we have done this so far by creating a Content Strategy Group composed by current and former policymakers (see who will help us think about content and methodology of an online course. We are also interviewing policymakers to gather their experience since while developing the curriculum for the course we find we have huge gaps in terms of systematised knowledge (see first interview here: can be really useful for them.

    2. Become more sophisticated when we talk about evidence informing policy. We are ripe enough (well, are we?) to begin developing a more complex taxonomy of what we mean by each component. What I am trying to express here is: what type of “knowledges” are useful for policy? Are there sorts of evidence that are more prone to be used in a specific policy moment or by a particular profile of policymaker? For example, Andrea Ordoñez has contributed with a series of reflective posts on how to more concretely and effectively think about research within policy: Is is definitely not the same to offer research findings related to assessing a future policy problem than results of research that imply a large modification of a current policy. How do these options talk to political gains and citizen support?

    Why are we not distinguishing these better? I am sure policymakers are naturally aware of these differences and that explains a great deal on how the interact (or not) with the evidence around them. We need to talk with them, work with them, fail with them, so as to build a new framework that integrates politics, policymaking and politicians, as Anne has proposed. Probably none of them will speak about evidence informed policy but they might provide us with a new and more real way of thinking and acting in our field.

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