Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Problematising Aspects of Evidence-Based Policy: An Analysis Illustrated by an Australian Homelessness Policy 1985-2008

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Problematising Aspects of Evidence-Based Policy: An Analysis Illustrated by an Australian Homelessness Policy 1985-2008

Article excerpt


The past few decades have witnessed growing international demand for policies to be based on evidence (Banks 2009a; 2009b: Head 2010; Pawson 2006). While there has been some modification of this objective over time, at least in the academic literature (Nutley et al. 2013; Marston & Watts 2003), in the public domain policies continue to rely on this justification because allegedly they avoid ideology and normative values. Instead, policies are purported to be firmly grounded in fact and the relevant science. Thus, in Australia 'evidence-based policy', or EBP (O'Dwyer 2004: 2) is advocated by politicians, bureaucrats, and policy developers, including parts of the non-government sector, which also invokes it in order to urge policy responses to issues of concern. As used by its staunch defenders, the need for EBP is axiomatic, and the adduced evidence is regarded as neutral and therefore uncontestable. While agreeing that policies are ideally informed by sound data (such as about the extent and characteristics of the target group, and the personal or social 'need'), the following article focuses on some aspects of the contested nature of social scientific research, and critically evaluates specific features of the popular notion of evidence-based policy.

The demand for evidence-based policy extends almost universally to policies in public health, and increasingly in education, employment, urban affairs, community development, and the vast array of policies drafted under the rubric of 'welfare', including aspects of housing policy and homelessness (Australian Government 2009; Jones & Seelig 2005; O'Dwyer 2004). In Australia the term EBP remains popular in discourse amongst the commentariat, the media, and politicians. As attested by the evaluation requirement built into the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program, policies for homeless people in Australia have purportedly been based on evidence. Further, the demand for evidence-based policy regarding homelessness is epitomised by three more recent documents published by the Australian Federal Labor Government between 2008-09. In each of these documents the use of, and requirement for, evidence-based policies was fundamental.

The first example comes from the Green paper Which Way Home? A New Approach to Homelessness (Commonwealth of Australia 2008). It argued that the 'Data and research on homelessness in Australia is limited, especially on the cost-benefit and cost-effectiveness of homelessness strategies and programs' (Commonwealth of Australia 2008: 11). The Government's subsequent White Paper, The Road Home: A National Approach to Reducing Homelessness, claimed that: 'There is an urgent need to improve the evidence base to inform the delivery of high-quality services to people vulnerable to homelessness' (Homelessness Taskforce 2008: 58, emphasis added). The Taskforce also noted the imperative to measure the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of services and programs (Homelessness Taskforce 2008: 58).

A third official Federal Government document, which illustrates the meaning and use of EBP among politicians, was specifically about research. The National Homelessness Research Agenda 2009-2013 (Australian Government 2009), to which $11.4 million was allocated, outlined 'the national priorities for research that will contribute to the whole-of-government response to homelessness', avowing that the 'Agenda provides a guiding framework for building a cohesive evidence base' (2, emphasis added). It also included a National Homelessness Research Framework, the 'Aim' of which was 'To improve the evidence base for preventing and responding to homelessness' (4; Fopp 2011). The above three examples highlight the demand for EBP in policies for people who are homeless.

At the most basic level, policy as a response to a social issue is of necessity reliant upon supporting evidence of some kind: the nature and purpose of policy as a set of procedural strategies intended to alter existing circumstances must in the first instance ascertain what those circumstances are. …

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