Evidence-Based Policy – Relying on Experts

On of the things that I hear almost every day is the question “where is the evidence for that?”  There are frequent calls in public administration for building the evidence base to both inform policy making and also to justify policy direction.

A recent report by Demos, a UK management think tank,  examines the reliance on experts and their datasets in much of public administration. From case studies including the BSE and mad cow problems a few years back in the UK, they find that experts are no longer deferred to and that their knowledge is often not trusted.  Yet we still need experts to understand the specifics of detailed interactions that impact upon real people.

They point out that the problem with evidence-based policy is that evidence is about the past but policy is about the future.  And the future may be quite different to the past.  Of more concern is that developing evidence is often used to support or justify existing policy.  There are countless examples of people “bending” statistics to suit their argument.  It’s better for the evidence to inform policy debates in a contextual and considered manner.  

The report further points out the perils with relying on experts.  Experts are often unaware of their own blind spots.  They often see the world through their own prism, discounting others’ views.    More critically, their view is one that sees cause and effect when it perhaps is not as clear – or vice versa that cause and effect is not seen.  The report points out that evidence based policy overlooks the uncertainties that define our problems.  The absence of evidence of danger does not meant that there is evidence of
absence of danger.  The BSE case and that of thalidomide are classic examples where false certainty is expressed.

I’ve had many concerns with a reliance on evidence based policy – particularly where that evidence is currently lacking.  Evidence-informed policy sounds much better – it focuses on the use of evidence to inform decisions while still providing scope for judgement and wisdom.  Evidence based policy sounds more prescriptive with less scope for context and qualification.   

As with many Demos reports, their answer is to have has less closed groups of government appointed experts providing rational basis for policy and instead include the community more in a transparent and collaborative approach.  Relying on experts without external scrutiny runs counter to the knowledge-based economy arguments and in effect, excludes them from the debate which reduces the opportunity to build social legitimacy.  

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