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What is behind the idea of Evidence Based Policy?

In the previous post, I shared Jal Mehta’s framework that can help us take apart an idea into its different dimensions  (I suggest you review it before reading this post). The three dimensions are policy solutions, problem definition and public philosophy. An idea that floats around much of our work is that of evidence-based policy. But what is this idea? Is it a solution or a public philosophy? To what problem does it respond?

The objective of this post is to outline aspects of the concept of evidence based policy that could and should be taken into account when discussing the link between research and policy. Our agenda, by introducing the concepts of politics, ideas and communications already takes a critical stand on the concept of evidence based policy with a special emphasis on the developing world.

Policy solution – Probably the most common way to describe evidence-based policy is as a solution. Evidence is presented as the source of the answer to a policy dilemma. With this conception in mind, it is clear that the key is evidence, and what it entails.  Much effort has been put on defining what this evidence is and how decision-makers can rely on it for a policy solution. When seen as a policy solution, evidence based policy has the effect of deviating the attention from a wider political debate into what works and what is the proof of such work.

What are some of the issues of evidence-based policy as a solution?  Ironically, as Emma Broadbent has mentioned in her analysis of policy debates in Africa, the concept itself lacks rigor. This means that, as much as the proposed solution is finding ‘what works’, there is no clarity that evidence-based policies themselves work.  What makes this debate even more complex is that many times the cases that are analyzed are biased towards the research that was used and had a positive impact, few focus on understanding cases where evidence played a small role and the policy outcome was favorable, or cases in which the use of evidence resulted in a negative outcome. So is evidence-based policy really a solution?

Problem definition – The other relevant question is that of how the broad problem is framed for EBP to emerge and become a plausible solution.  The question is how are the problems with policies understood so that research can find a place in the debate? Broadly, for EBP to fit the debate the problem is probably framed around a lack of evidence or a lack of use by policymakers. For example, the appearance of new evidence allows for a causality to be established. This following statement could have been stated: “If this (evidence, research, knowledge now available) would have been taken into consideration, then this (bad policy choice) would not have happened”. Such way of defining a problem opens a space for research.

Interestingly, as a lack of evidence is established as a possible problem, there is a need for responsibility to be established. Is it that researchers do not engage in meaningful research? Do they not provide useful or policy-relevant knowledge? Or is it policymakers who do not take into account the existing knowledge? As you can imagine, these different ways of defining the problem lead to a variety of ways in which EBP (the solution) can unfold. Will governments commission more research? Will non-state actors become more involved? Will policies to take into account research in the policy problems be put in place?

It is difficult to generalize how problems – where EBP is perceived as a plausible solution – are defined. Our objective for now is just to shed some light on the interrelation between how a problem is defined and its solutions.

Public philosophy – Finally, EBP is also a public philosophy. EBP originated from the concept of evidence-based medicine which is the process of systematically comparing treatments and placebos to determine the best interventions.  Transferring this concept to the public arena, is however not as simple since policies and programs are hardly comparable to medicines. EBP as a public philosophy has gained traction and momentum, it has become a buzzword, and is regarded by many as intrinsically positive. As such, EBP can be seen as a public philosophy, or an assumption. As De Tuit as already stated, EBP is normative.

Most importantly, though, a public philosophy has a time and context. This means that it emerges in a given context, and may evolve into very different conceptions with time, and across diverse geographic and political contexts. Furthermore, the sole concept of EBP has changed the policy landscapes. The policy arena, with the introduction of research and evidence is different than without it – but how, specifically?

What this short reflection on EBP shows is that there is no unique way of understanding it and that in fact, it intertwines different problem definitions, solutions and philosophies. In our research agenda, therefore, EBP is considered as this broad idea. As such, we can and should examine how it is understood in different contexts, who champions and who resists the idea. Furthermore, knowing that it is an idea that will eventually evolve, the question is: into what? A forward looking agenda should invite us into reflecting how the idea is evolving and what it can become.