Magazine article Public Sector

Is It Logical? Using Evidence in Developing Social Policies

Magazine article Public Sector

Is It Logical? Using Evidence in Developing Social Policies

Article excerpt

On the surface, evidencebased policy-making is only logical - who could argue with using the best information available to determine a course of action? The rub, of course, is what constitutes the "best information" and how it is extrapolated and used by researchers, policy advisors and decision-makers. SHELLY FARR BISWELL looks at the pitfalls.

Led by the United Kingdom, as we entered the 21st century, evidence-based policy-making became identified as the key to effective policy development. By the mid- 2000s evidence-based policymaking was going to, as the Urban Institute described in 2008, allow us to move "beyond ideology, politics, and guesswork".

In New Zealand, as Dr Susan St John and Dr Claire Dale discuss in their informative article Evidence-based Evaluation: Working for Families, it became "fashionable" in the early 2000s to "emphasise the role of evidence and analysis, thus making social science and policy-making appear 'objective' and 'scientific'".

In the early days, it was assumed by some that the type of evidence needed to support an argument would be readily available. However, Dale and St John explain, "statistical methods designed for an idealised world may rely on some assumptions that make the results questionable".

They add that sample sizes and taking into account other factors may also affect results, noting that, "In this environment there are many caveats around most evidence-based evaluations".

The case for quality data

With those caveats in place, evidence is an important part of social policy development. Evidence can be used to define a problem, identify possible ways to address the problem, and consider the impacts of potential policies. Key to this, however, is ensuring data collection and analysis is robust.

In June, to "bridge the gap" between researchers, policymakers, and community organisations, the Families Commission hosted the Evidence2Action symposium. Symposium keynote speaker Professor of Evidence- Informed Practice Aron Shlonsky from the University of Melbourne who is also an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto, says there are numerous challenges for using evidence to inform social work, including the number of information sources and the changing state of knowledge.

"One thing that could substantially improve the generation and use of evidence is the systematic and thoughtful use of clinical and services information gathered every day by caseworkers. We need to figure out ways to make this information gathering a useful part of how social workers do their work rather than having data collection limited to a mandatory field completed for compliance purposes. To do that, we need to move toward data systems that are better integrated with direct practice, where there is a systematic rubric for evidence use, review and evaluation in our interactions with clients," he says.

"That means building better data systems that are intuitive, useful for practitioners, and that can be built in a modular, flexible fashion using secure open source products, and that can be added to and changed over time. If we can collect usable data at the practice level, the information will be more reliable, valid and informative for data analytics than what is currently the case."

Part of a system

In their article, Dale and St John discuss a possible policy development framework. …

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