Achieving evidence-based policy is more complex than it seems, but lasting, collegial interactions between government and academia (RPPs) may help.
Evidence-based policy-making (EBPM) is a concept frequently invoked in political discussions and seems to enjoy broad support among governments, researchers and interest groups. This is not surprising, given the attractive underlying idea that important decisions should be made objectively, using the best available information, rather than being unduly influenced by ideology or opinion. In theory, this kind of decision-making increases the likelihood of accurately assessing the advantages and disadvantages of policy measures, leading to more beneficial outcomes for society as a whole. If the appeal of EBPM is intuitive, and everyone seems to agree that it is worth pursuing, why do we even need a term for it? Who is making policy without considering evidence?
One reason that EBPM is discussed so frequently and fervently is that, as a concept, it is far more complicated than it first appears. To start with, definitions of evidence are subjective. When academics support EBPM, they typically use a fairly narrow definition of evidence, including only (or at least privileging) peer-reviewed academic research. I use the term “tight EBPM” to refer to this perspective. In comparison, when policy-makers refer to EBPM, they often use a broader definition of evidence, including professional experience, political know-how, stakeholder accounts and government evaluations. I use the term “loose EBPM” to refer to this interpretation. Both views have strengths and weaknesses. This variation in understanding of “evidence,” EBPM’s central concept, helps to clarify why academics and policy-makers may disagree about EBPM, even as both groups support the practice in general.
Another source of controversy is that academics may fail to appreciate the political realities of policy-makers. The policy process, inherently, cannot be perfectly rational or ideal. It operates under time, resource and psychological constraints, and must be concerned with maintaining trust and support for government, not simply making the “best” policy for long-term societal outcomes. This means that factors that academics might not count as evidence — such as public opinion, popular culture, media commentary, risk management, political relationships and interest groups — can be important and legitimate influences on government decisions. In this context, academics may feel frustrated when their research or advice seems to go unheeded, and they often turn to advocating tighter EBPM. But why would policy-makers want tighter EBPM? What is the appeal of being influenced to make decisions they would not otherwise make?
It is difficult and perhaps misguided for outsiders to attempt to persuade policy-makers to privilege certain forms of evidence over others. Perhaps academics and policy-makers could instead try to find a mutually acceptable definition of EBPM and clearly identify the benefits for all relevant actors of a policy process based on that definition, but that would take a lot of hard work, with no guarantee of a good result.
I believe there is a simpler way to address or at least sidestep the conceptual issues with EBPM: research–policy partnerships (RPPs). I define these as any lasting, regular, collegial interactions between a ministry, branch or agency within government and a department, research group or institute within academia. They can be as simple as informal monthly meetings to exchange information about current policy priorities and contemporary research in a given field, and can be initiated by either side.
The consideration of RPPs can reveal some common ground between academics and policy-makers. Focusing on the development of partnerships themselves, rather than on the end goal of having evidence influence policy, means that academic presumptions about how the policy process should work are less prominent and there is less tension between them and the reality experienced by policy-makers. The partnerships do not have to be centred on evidence and do not preclude the use of “looser” forms of evidence in the policy process, but they may help increase policy-makers’ exposure to research evidence over time. Finally, RPPs can be pursued in the short term, which allows for short-term benefits to be identified, whereas the general pursuit of EBPM alleges benefits primarily in the long term. These short-term benefits may be more appealing to policy-makers operating under time constraints.
As part of a larger research project on climate change policy for my doctoral dissertation, I interviewed scientists and policy-makers in British Columbia who were taking part in existing RPPs. From the interviews, I identified seven potential short-term benefits of RPPs for policy-makers. These benefits may not be found in every RPP, nor are they necessarily the only benefits that may materialize.
- More efficiency in gathering necessary information
Although the concept of EBPM implies that the most useful research is generated by universities, governments also conduct their own research. For example, public servants might scan news articles and available reports in order to brief high-level decision-makers. As well, governments employ scientists, policy analysts and engineers to provide expertise directly. A functioning partnership can reveal areas of potential overlap, allowing public servants to avoid redundant work and use their time more efficiently.
- Greater access to academic sources and interpretation
Much contemporary research that might be relevant for policy is published in academic journals that require expensive subscriptions, to which smaller governments such as municipal ones may not have access. A government may be able to retrieve the key ideas in these sources through its relationship with a university unit. Academic researchers can also provide interpretations and summaries, translating research into a more usable form, further benefiting the government’s own information collection function.
- Capacity building through coalitions and literacy
After a time, an RPP is likely to evolve. While a partnership may initially involve a single policy liaison or a single government department, other officials and units will tend to become engaged in it as relationships are established and knowledge is shared through word of mouth. This can have the effect of building coalitions for certain policy initiatives and developing general “literacy” or “capacity” for a particular issue, which can lead to more productive internal discussions and increased competency in gathering information.
- More relevant framing of research findings
When there is dialogue between researchers and policy-makers, it allows the former to appreciate the needs of the latter and frame relevant information in a more useful way. This might seem to advantage primarily the research side of the partnership, but policy actors certainly benefit from having information presented to them in a more relevant and accessible form.
- Opportunity for feedback
Once an RPP is well established and there is a foundation of trust, the partners can interact with minimal fear that any communications will be made public. Contacts at the research organization will have expertise about certain issues, which makes them an ideal source of external feedback. For example, they might review a new government report or policy statement before it is released to the public. Informal relationships with researchers can also facilitate convenient opportunities for quick feedback (for instance, through phone calls or e-mails) on more minor matters, such as short articles or meeting preparations.
- Greater ability to convene stakeholders
Government agencies can more effectively fulfill their mandates when they have a functioning relationship with stakeholders in the relevant policy sector. However, given the inherent power dynamics, it is difficult for government to convey neutrality as the facilitator of workshops or consultations, whereas research organizations can offer a certain credibility as facilitators. By taking this role, research organizations may be able to assist government in connecting with industry, NGOs and other interest groups.
- Resources for joint projects
Research organizations and policy institutions are different by their very natures. Researchers might be able to draw upon resources unavailable to policy-makers (such as venues at universities), and in some situations they might have more freedom to deploy financial and labour resources. Accordingly, many projects (such as workshops, conferences and information campaigns) can be completed more effectively as joint initiatives. Academics and policy-makers might also share tools and data with one another.
If academics want to advocate that governments use a tighter definition of EBPM, with greater reliance on research evidence, the assumed long-term societal benefits will not be enough to make their case. The short-term advantages to policy-makers must be clear, since policy-makers are most responsible for EBPM’s implementation. RPPs have a clear edge because of the potential short-term benefits governments may be able to reap. In partnership with researchers, policy-makers may be able to improve their own information-gathering function (benefits 1, 2, 3, and 4), better manage relationships with stakeholders and the public (benefits 5 and 6) and pursue fruitful joint projects (benefit 7). Efficiencies in these areas might also free up time and resources for unrelated endeavours.
The case for RPPs should appeal to both academics and policy-makers. Even if the interest in long-term societal benefits from EBPM is much lower among policy-makers than among academics, there are still many good reasons to pursue RPPs. While I recommend that these partnerships be established on the basis of their efficacy in the short term, I remain optimistic about EBPM and believe that RPPs will increase the chance of realizing its societal benefits in the long term. Of course, in order for this to happen, RPPs must have staying power, which requires that they be founded on the basis of mutual benefits, not on an expectation by either party that it will be able to immediately and directly influence the other.
The original version of this article appeared in Canadian Public Policy.
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