To the Social Policy Research and Evaluation Conference

Article excerpt


Dame Anne Salmond suggests three areas in which New Zealand research and social policy might be profitably connected. To begin with she advocates evidence-based approaches to equity issues. Secondly she proposes we examine New Zealand's aspirations to be a fair and prosperous nation and, lastly, that we inquire into ways of giving our children a good life.


A wise person once said that there is one big difference between academia and politics: in politics, it's dog eat dog, while in academia, it's exactly the reverse. But of course this isn't really true. Academia is all about collegiality and co-operation, and it is in that spirit I offer my thoughts about how research and social policy may profitably be connected.

At the recent Knowledge Wave Conference, Professor John Hattie argued that teachers had a lot to learn from doctors. According to John, over the past 150 years medicine has evolved from a craft, based largely on intuition and guesswork, with a very low success rate (i.e. it killed most of its patients), to an evidence-based practice driven by the results of research. With this transformation, the efficacy of medicine has increased hugely.

But, he argued, teachers still operate with a craft model, their practice largely uninformed by research into the processes of thinking and learning, and the effectiveness of particular teaching strategies. Unsurprisingly their rates of success are often low, particularly for Maori, Pacific and low-income children.

John Hattie's argument also applies to the ways in which social policy is forged in this country. Social policies and strategies have often been devised and enacted without the benefit of systematic enquiry. Initiatives frequently go awry, or have unintended consequences. This is the craft model of practice at work, based on intuition and guesswork, rather than enquiry. An evidence-based approach might produce policies that actually achieve their intended goals: building a happier, more prosperous nation.

Part of the trick with research is to know what questions to ask. The interests of those at the receiving end of policies and strategies must be at the forefront of research into social issues. Ideology can get in the way of this process, shutting down awkward questions or suppressing uncomfortable findings. If evidence-based practice is to be ethical, honest and accurate, the interests of children (rather than teachers, or the Ministry of Education); of patients (rather than doctors, or the Ministry of Health); of Maori or Pacific people, or other New Zealanders (rather than civil servants, politicians or particular elites) must be kept paramount. Research should illuminate their aspirations, their perceptions, and how they are actually faring. Research should ask what strategies deliver better social and economic outcomes for them, trial initiatives in a systematic fashion, and report the results without fear or favour. The greatest challenge is then to act, based on evidence derived from systematic, honest enquiry.

There are three areas of contemporary social life in New Zealand where, in my view, evidence-based approaches to policy-making would make a huge difference. These are biculturalism or Treaty-based policy, New Zealand's aspirations to be a fair and prosperous society, and providing a good life for our children.


Biculturalism, or Treaty-based policy--the delivery of justice and a good life for Maori people--is an area of policy-making which is riddled with ideology, both non-Maori and Maori. Strategies are often claimed to be worthwhile in the absence of any convincing evidence, just because they suit someone's ideological position. Open and rigorous debate in this area has often been sidelined or suppressed, leaving poor outcomes unchallenged by systematic inquiry or robust criticism.

Evidence-based approaches might begin by investigating and documenting the aspirations of particular segments of the Maori population. …