Evidence-Based Policy and Practice: Cross-Sector Lessons from the United Kingdom

Article excerpt


This paper identifies key lessons learnt in the Public Sector quest for policy and practice to become more evidence based. The Annex to this paper provides outlines of and web links to specific initiatives across the public sector in the United Kingdom.


There is nothing new about the idea that policy and practice should be informed by the best available evidence. Researchers and analysts have long worked with and within government to provide evidence-based policy advice, and the specific character of the relationship between social research and social policy in Britain was shaped in the 19th and 20th centuries (Bulmer 1982). The 1960s represented a previous high point in the relationship between researchers and policy makers (Bulmer 1986, Finch 1986). However, during the 1980s and early 1990s there was a distancing and even dismissal of research in many areas of policy, as the doctrine of "conviction politics" held sway.

In the United Kingdom it was the landslide election of the Labour government in 1997, subsequently returned with a substantial majority in 2001, that revitalised interest in the role of evidence in the policy process. In setting out its modernising agenda, the government pledged, "We will be forward-looking in developing policies to deliver outcomes that matter, not simply reacting to short-term pressures" (Cm 4310 1999). The same white paper proposed that being evidence based was one of several core features of effective policy making, a theme developed in subsequent government publications (Performance and Innovation Unit 2001, National Audit Office 2001, Bullock et al. 2001).

In the wake of this modernising agenda, a wide range of ambitious initiatives have been launched to strengthen the use of evidence in public policy and practice. A cross-sector review of some of these can be found in the book What Works: Evidence-Based Policy and Practice in Public Services (Davies et al. 2000) and in two special issues of the journal Public Money and Management (Jan 1999, Oct 2000). In order to give a flavour of the range, scope and aims of these developments, the annex to this paper provides an overview of two generic initiatives and a summary of several sector-specific developments.

This paper seeks to draw out some of the key lessons that have emerged from the experience of trying to ensure that public policy and professional practice are better informed by evidence than has hitherto been the case. It does this by highlighting four requirements for improving evidence use and considering progress to date in relation to each of these.

Because the use of evidence is just one imperative in effective policy making, and in acknowledgement that policy making itself is always inherently political, a caveat seems appropriate at this point. Further, as professional practice is also generally contingent on both client needs and local context, warnings are similarly needed in this area also. The term "evidence-based" when attached as a modifier to policy or practice has become part of the lexicon of academics, policy people, practitioners and even client groups. Yet such glib terms can obscure the sometimes limited role that evidence can, does, or even should, play. In recognition of this, we would prefer "evidence-influenced", or even just "evidence-aware", to reflect a more realistic view of what can be achieved. Nonetheless, we will continue the current practice of referring to "evidence-based policy and practice" (EBPP) as a convenient shorthand for the collection of ideas around this theme, which has risen to prominence over the past two decades. On encountering this term, we trust the reader will recall our caveat and moderate their expectations accordingly.


If evidence is to have a greater impact on policy and practice, then four key requirements would seem to be necessary:

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