Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Policy Analytical Capacity and Evidence-Based Policy-Making: Lessons from Canada

Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Policy Analytical Capacity and Evidence-Based Policy-Making: Lessons from Canada

Article excerpt

Policy analysis is a relatively recent movement, dating back to the 1960s and the U.S. experience with large-scale planning processes in areas such as defence, urban redevelopment and budgeting (Behn 1981; Garson 1986; Lindblom 1958; MacRae and Wilde 1985; Wildavsky 1969). Seen as a social movement, it represents the efforts of actors inside and outside formal political decision-making processes to improve policy outcomes by applying systematic evaluative rationality to public problems and concerns (Aberbach and Rockman 1989; Mintrom 2007). There have been debates about whether policy analysis has improved on the outcomes associated with processes such as bargaining, compromise, negotiation and log-rolling that are less instrumental (Uhr 1996; Colebatch 2006; Majone 1989). However, from within the policy analytical community, there has been no fundamental challenge to the primary raison d'etre of policy analysis: to improve policy outcomes by applying systematic analytic methodologies to policy appraisal, assessment and evaluation (MacRae 1991; Nilsson et al. 2008; Radin 2000). Evidence-based or "evidence-informed" policy-making represents a recent effort to again reform or re-structure policy processes by prioritizing evidentiary decision-making criteria (Nutley, Walter, and Davies 2007; Pawson 2006; Sanderson 2006). This is being done in an effort to avoid or minimize policy failures caused by a mismatch between government expectations and actual, on-the-ground conditions. The evidence-based policy movement is thus the latest in a series of efforts undertaken by reformers in governments over the past half-century to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of public policy-making. In all of these efforts, it is expected that through a process of theoretically informed empirical analysis, governments can better learn from experience and both avoid repeating the errors of the past as well as better apply new techniques to the resolution of old and new problems (Sanderson 2002a; May 1992).

Exactly what constitutes "evidence-based policy-making" and whether analytical efforts in this regard actually result in better or improved policies, however, are topics that remain contentious in the literature on the subject (Boaz et al. 2008; Jackson 2007; Packwood 2002; Pawson 2002). A spate of studies, for example, has questioned the value of a renewed emphasis on the collection and analysis of large amounts of data in policy-making circumstances (Tenbensel 2004). Among the concerns raised about an increased emphasis on evidence in contemporary policy-making are the following:

1. Evidence is only one factor involved in policy-making and is not necessarily able to overcome other factors such as constitutional divisions of powers or jurisdictions, which can arbitrarily assign locations and responsibilities for particular issue areas to specific levels or institutions of government and diminish the rationality level of policy-making by so doing (Davies 2004; Radin and Boase 2000; Young et al. 2002).

2. Data collection and analytical techniques employed in its gathering and analysis by specially trained policy technicians may not be necessarily superior to the experiential judgments of politicians and other key policy decision-makers (Jackson 2007; Majone 1989).

3. The kinds of "high-quality" and universally acknowledged evidence initially proposed when "evidence-based policy-making" first entered the lexicon of policy analysts in the health-care field--especially the "systematic review" of clinical findings--often has no analogue in many policy sectors, where generating evidence using the "gold standard" of random clinical trial methodologies may not be possible (Innvaer et al. 2002; Pawson et al. 2005).

4. An increased emphasis on evidence-based policy-making can stretch the analytical resources of participating organizations, be they governmental or non-governmental, to the breaking point (Hammersley 2005). …

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