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date: 23 March 2017

Evidence-Based Policy

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

Since the late 1990s, there has been increased attention in public policy on evidence-based policy making. The term appears to have emerged with the election of the Blair government in the United Kingdom and a desire to be seen to be taking ideology and politics out of the policy process. The focus was on using evidence to inform policy makers about “what works.” For politicians, evidence-based policy is often used rhetorically to imply that the policy is beyond reproach, and possibly debate, as it has been drawn from “the evidence,” generally taken to be objective. For public policy scholars, the concept is more problematic and has been the subject of much debate in the literature.

The first concern with the concept is that the evidence-based policy movement appears to have forgotten, or never learned, the lessons of the critique of rational-comprehensive approaches to policy making, which was launched so effectively in Lindblom’s seminal 1959 work The Science of “Muddling Through” and never really rebutted, in spite of attempts by advocates of the policy cycle and other rational models. The policy process is complex. Improving the quality of the information on which decisions are based is desirable but will not fix the pathologies of the process, which have been so thoroughly documented and analyzed by political scientists and public policy scholars.

The second problem is that the rhetoric of evidence-based policy does not recognize the contested nature of evidence itself. It has similarly forgotten the lessons from the sociology of science, and science and technology studies, about the value-laden nature of scientific inquiry and the choices that are made about what to research and how to undertake that research.

Third, the emphasis has been on particular types of evidence, with particular methodologies being privileged over others, running the risk that what counts as evidence is only what can be counted or presented in a particular way. The choice of evidence is value-laden and political in itself.

Finally, attempts to take the ideology or politics out of policy are misguided at best but potentially undemocratic. Making policy is the business of politics. In democratic systems, politicians are elected to implement their policies, and those policies are based in particular sets of values. Our leaders are elected to make collective decisions on behalf of the electorate, and those decisions are based on judgment, including value judgments. Evidence can inform this process, but it will not always be decisive.