The Politics of Evidence-Based Policy-Making: The Case of Denmark

Article excerpt

1 Introduction

In Denmark welfare policies and public sector reforms are high politics these years. Demographic changes threaten on the horizon. Projections show that in the future there will be fewer people in the labor market, large numbers of public employees will retire and the demand for welfare services will increase. In this context the evidence movement has established itself in Denmark in recent years. In several policy fields organizations specialized in producing evidence through summarizing and synthesizing already existing evaluative knowledge in so-called reviews have been formed. By producing but also disseminating evidence produced internationally the organizations aim at ensuring that policy-making and policy delivery are evidence-based. The paper analyses and discusses this development.

The concept of "evidence" has a very broad and diffuse meaning in the debate on the "evidence-based policy and practice". The recent debate has shown heated disagreements about what counts as evidence (Donaldson, Christie and Mark 2009: 5-6). This discussion is part of a much wider discussion and also a field of study especially within evaluation. This wider field is about the use and influence of evaluation and research in policy and professional practice, on which there has been written extensively. One recent book with a good overview of the field is Nutley et al. (2007). However, in this chapter "evidence" understood as systematic research reviews is in focus, and not the general issue on utilization of research and evaluation.

The focus is on the Danish branch of the evidence movement and on the political aspects related to this. Three questions are addressed. 1) Why and how has the evidence movement become institutionalized? 2) How is it organized and how does it practice? 3) Which are the political dimensions and conflicts related to this development?

The paper is divided in two parts. The first part is empirical. It holds an analysis of how the idea of evidence-based policy and practice has travelled into Denmark, how the idea has been institutionalized in organizations specialized in producing evidence-based knowledge and how these organizations practice.

The theoretical, analytical approach in this part is institutional and methodological. The institutional approach puts focus on how the idea of evidence-based policy and practice has travelled into Denmark and how it has become institutionalized in organizations specialized in producing evidence. Institutionalization may be driven by different pressures. Using DiMaggio and Powell (1991: 67) a distinction can be made by coercive, mimetic and normative pressures. Coercive pressure results from formal or informal pressures and authority exerted on organizations by other organizations upon which they are dependent as well as by cultural expectations in society. Mimetic pressures results from uncertainty. When organizational technologies are poorly understood, when goals are ambiguous, or when the environment creates symbolic uncertainty, organizations may model themselves on other organizations. Normative pressures finally stem from professionalization defined as collective struggle of members of an occupation to define conditions and methods for their work and to establish a cognitive base for and thereby legitimate their occupational autonomy. The analysis of how the evidence idea travels and becomes institutionalized will clarify whether the institutionalization of the evidence movement in Denmark is driven by coercive, mimetic and/or normative pressures.

A central notion in DiMaggio and Powell (1991) is that the travel and institutionalization of ideas result in isomorphism defined as homogenization across organizations and organizational fields. The analysis of how the evidence-producing organizations organize and practice will clarify whether isomorphism occurs or whether the idea of the evidence movement is translated into local contexts and shaped by national and local political traditions and stakeholders, as suggested by among others Czarniawska and Joerges (1996), Sahlin-Anderson (1996), Radaelli (2005) and Rovik (2007). …