Is evidence-based government possible?

Is evidence-based government possible?

What sort of evidence is used by the UK government in policy making?

This lecture looks at whether evidence-based policy and evidence-based government is possible, and whether it is more than a rhetorical device. It attempts to define evidence-based policy and considers factors other than evidence that influence policy making and policy implementation.

It also considers the types of evidence used by governments and the types of research that can contribute to that evidence. Some of the mechanisms that need to be in place for evidence-based government to occur are also discussed.

It concludes that evidence-based government is possible and is well established in the UK. It argues that a broader conception of evidence is used by most government than by some academics, and that a wide range of methods for gathering and appraising evidence for government is required.

The driving force for evidence in government tends to be the type of question being asked, rather than any particular research method or design. Most governments require sound evidence on both the effectiveness of outcomes and the effectiveness of implementation and delivery of policies, programmes and projects. The availability of both types of evidence is often in short supply.

This paper has also argues that there are influences on government and policy making other than evidence. These include the experience, expertise and judgement of policy officials and Ministers, values and ideology, available resources, habits and tradition, lobbyists, pressure groups and the media, and the pragmatics and contingencies of everyday political life. The uncertainty of social, economic and political events, coupled with the uncertainty and inconclusive nature of scientific knowledge, mean that high quality evidence often has to compete with these other factors as a basis for decision making. Failure to appreciate these realities of government may result in the principles of evidence-based policy and practice being used less often and with less seriousness than they deserve.

This paper was the Jerry Lee Lecture 2004, presented at the 4th Annual Campbell Collaboration Colloquium, by an author from the UK Government Chief Social Researcher’s Office, Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, Cabinet Office [adapted from author]

  1. How good is this research?

    Assessing the quality of research can be a tricky business. This blog from our editor offers some tools and tips.