Since the 1980s, there has been much talk about using better evidence to solve our big policy problems. The idea is simple – evidence helps us to understand the scope of the problem, the causal relationships at work, and the optimal solutions.

This notion has been widely promoted by the OECD and its member countries, including Canada, the US, and many others. The British UK Labour government under Tony Blair famously used the slogan “What counts is what works,” to indicate its focus on achieving better outcomes through better policy design and better evaluation.

There has been considerable progress in building the rigorous knowledge systems required for governments to gather and analyze information for the policy process – whether to track current program performance or to fine-tune feasible options for future policy improvement.

The recent availability of “big data” drawn from organizational databases and from digital communication platforms has re-energized calls for better use of evidence in policy-making.

Nevertheless, there are critics of the movement for evidence-based policy-making who claim that:

  • evidence is always incomplete, especially for complex and evolving issues;
  • evidence for policy-making draws on several forms of technical and stakeholder knowledge, which are often inconsistent;
  • evidence is always subject to value-laden interpretations, hidden or overt;
  • evidence is inevitably “cherry-picked” by governments and stakeholders to support their preferred positions;
  • attempts to rely on specialized evidence can lead to technocratic styles of decision-making;
  • decisions in public policy are ultimately political, and accountability rests with elected governments.

So, if evidence does not automatically translate into better solutions and better outcomes, what are some alternative ways of thinking about the role of evidence in policy? And how does this affect ongoing concerns to improve the quality of policy-making?

A crucial area of debate has focused on how evidence and values intersect in complex policy arenas. For example, complex and contentious issues are always marked by differences in values, interests and perspectives.

Examples of difficult issues that have these features are debates on the immigration and refugees; recognition of the rights of Indigenous people; finding more sustainable forms of economic development; tackling illicit drugs; and balancing equity and efficiency goals.

On these matters, value differences cannot be effectively sidelined or de-politicized through the use of evidence and data, or by deferring the issues to committees of technical experts. In many cases, governments will attempt to impose their own preferred solution, either to appease their own supporter base (“keeping promises”), or in order to close down the debate.

In the long run, however, these differences in values and interests need to be acknowledged, and methods found to accommodate diversity and equity. Collaborative forums and conflict-reduction methods may be required. This is a challenge for political leadership as much as one for evidence and expertise.

In two recent open-access articles, one with Josh Newman and the other with John Alford, I suggest that some issues are more amenable to evidence-informed solutions than others.

At one end of the spectrum, the nature of relatively simple problems can be readily analyzed and understood. Hence, the relevant policy responses can be monitored and refined on the basis of rigorous analysis and evidence-informed deliberation.

Wicked policy problems are characterized by conflicting values and perspectives, uncertainties about complex causal relationships, and debate about the impacts of policy options.

At the other end of the spectrum, policy problems may be complex, intractable, and contentious – in a word, “wicked.” Such problems are characterized by conflicting values and perspectives, uncertainties about complex causal relationships, and debate about the impacts of policy options.

The policy analysis puzzle is to clarify where each policy problem is located on this continuum, and the dynamics underlying its continued evolution. The associated challenge for policy design and implementation is to take account of the complexities (organizations, stakeholders, values, interests, cultures and localities).

Collaborative and coordinated approaches are often recommended for wicked problems. But the difficulties of successfully implementing such approaches are well known. On the other hand, the frequent preference of politicians for a quick and simple ‘solution’ for managing a complex policy problem often proves to be ineffective and sometimes counter-productive.

There are no correct answers to wicked problems. But some policy frameworks and stakeholder inclusion processes are better than others, both in terms of gaining wide support (legitimacy) and achieving progress toward desired goals (outcomes). For example, inclusive processes for considering the nature of the problems and the possible pathways toward improvement are often more beneficial than ideological solutions imposed by government.

Information-based strategies are only one thread in the policy mix required to enable us to tackle the wicked features of complex and contentious problems.

Good quality evidence from several sources of knowledge and analysis is always useful and necessary. But information alone cannot transform complex problems into simple solutions. Information-based strategies are only one thread in the policy mix required to enable us to tackle the wicked features of complex and contentious problems.

The nature of each wicked problem is contingent on a host of factors that need to be mapped, discussed and understood. Each problem has a unique history, even though many problems closely interact with others (such as poverty, housing, health and education). Solutions are also provisional and contingent. They are temporary political accommodations, depending not only on best available evidence but also on the balance of stakeholder sentiment and the quality of leadership in defining shared goals.

If collaborative agendas and methods are necessary, they will have to be “fit for purpose.” There are many types of collaboration. Each needs to be constructed in a nuanced way to incorporate relevant stakeholders and address the scale of the challenges.

Finally, there needs to be a more realistic standard of success in dealing with wicked problems, especially the most difficult ones like preventing domestic violence or responding to global climate change. To call for the definitive solving of these problems is to set up an impossible standard. Wicked problems cannot be “solved,” as such, but they can be much better managed, and significant improvements can be achieved.

Photo: Shutterstock, by vectorfusionart.

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Brian Head
Brian Head is a professor at the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland in Australia. He has held senior roles in government, universities, and the non-government sector, and is the author or editor of several books and numerous articles.

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