The State of Evidence-Based Policy Evaluation and Its Role in Policy Formation

By Davies, Philip | National Institute Economic Review, January 2012 | Go to article overview

The State of Evidence-Based Policy Evaluation and Its Role in Policy Formation


Davies, Philip, National Institute Economic Review


This paper argues that evidence-based policy has clearly made a worldwide impact, at least at the rhetorical and institutional levels, and in terms of analytical activity. The paper then addresses whether or not evidence-based policy evaluation has had an impact on policy formation and public service delivery. The paper uses a model of research-use that suggests that evidence can be used in instrumental, conceptual and symbolic ways. Taking four examples of the use of evidence in the UK over the past decade, this paper argues that evidence can be used instrumentally, conceptually and symbolically in complementary ways at different stages of the policy cycle and under different policy and political circumstances. The fact that evidence is not always used instrumentally, in the sense of "acting on research results in specific, direct ways" (Lavis et al., 2003, p. 228), does not mean that it has little or no influence. The paper ends by considering some of the obstacles to getting research evidence into policy and practice, and how these obstacles might be overcome.

Keywords: Evidence-based policy; policymaking; public service delivery; delivery trajectories

JEL Classifications: H11; H43; 128; 138; J62

The rhetoric of evidence-based policy

Over the past decade or so, and in many countries, public policymaking has claimed to be 'evidence-based' and doing 'what works'. In the United Kingdom evidence-based policy was a key element of efforts to reform the machinery of government after 1997. The Modernising Government White Paper (Cabinet Office, 1999a), for instance, stated that government policy must be evidence-based, properly evaluated and based on best practice. Prime Minister Tony Blair confirmed his "Government's commitment to policy-making based on hard evidence and, as in education, or NHS reforms, or fighting crime, we must always be looking at the outcomes of policies--the benefits in people's lives--not the process" (Cabinet Office, 2000, p.3).

A report from the Cabinet Office Strategic Policy Making Team on Professional Policy Making for the Twenty-First Century also suggested that "policy making must be soundly based on evidence of what works" and that "government departments must improve their capacity to make use of evidence" (Cabinet Office, 1999b, p.40). This approach to policymaking called for a greater use of evaluation of policies ex ante and post hoc and, consequently, a greater use of monitoring the roll out of policies and the delivery of public services (Barber, 2007).

Yet another report from the Cabinet Office in 2000, titled Adding It Up, clearly recognised the need for high quality analysis and evaluation in government, whilst acknowledging a sometimes limited demand:

"The government is fully committed to the principle that policies should be based on evidence. This means policy should be supported by good analysis and, where appropriate, modelling. This study has found, however, that demand for good analysis is not fully integrated in the culture of central Government."

Cabinet Office, 2000, p. 12

The rhetoric of evidence-based policymaking has continued with the UK's Coalition Government. In a speech to the Annual Leadership Conference of the National College for School Leadership, titled Seizing Success 2010, the Secretary of State for Education, Michel Gove, suggested that:

"Indeed I want to see more data generated by the profession to show what works, clearer information about teaching techniques that get results, more rigorous, scientifically-robust research about pedagogies which succeed and proper independent evaluations of interventions which have run their course. We need more evidence-based policy making, and for that to work we need more evidence."

The evidence-based policy agenda can be found worldwide. In his Inaugural Address as the 44th President of the United States of America, Barack Obama told the American people that his Administration would be based:

"not [on] whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works, whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. …

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