Framing challenges

Policy Week: How Much Evidence is ‘enough’ prior to policy implementation?

By 20 November 2015

Research to Action attended an event held by the New Researcher Network at the University of Manchester’s Policy Week designed to investigate how much evidence is ‘enough’ prior to policy implementation and how best to strike the balance between ‘ideal evidence’ and pragmatic decision making.

The event was chaired by Dr Kieron Flanagan, whilst Dr Julian Simpson of the University of Manchester and Dr Kathryn Oliver  of the University of Oxford offered their critical reflections on the topic. The panel was posed the specific question how much evidence is ‘enough’, but also associated questions on what types of evidence are preferable and how they can be analysed for rigour.

Julian Simpson began the session by offering an historical perspective to the debate. He emphasised how historical perspectives are often lacking in policy processes, yet they have a lot to add in terms of evaluating the starting point of a policy process. Simpson noted that historical perspectives of policy can offer direct evidence but also add a valuable mode of thought which is open to complexity and a range of evidence. The final point Simpson made was that we should be less focused on quantity but focus instead on the quality of evidence when asking the question how much evidence is ‘enough’ to inform policy.

Next, Kathryn Oliver considered how much evidence is ‘enough’ with the caveat that the models intended to depict the policy cycle never work as predicted in reality. Oliver pointed out that evidence within a policy cycle is meant to reduce political ambiguity and not decrease scientific uncertainty, making reference to Paul Cairney’s recent blog on the topic of evidence based policymaking exploring the same theme.

She used the analogy of a rugby match and the 2003 World Cup Final, when England won 20-17 against Australia. She explained that the evidence based decision in the final minutes of the game would have been for England to push for a try, because typically more points are scored that way in a rugby match, however a drop goal was the decision that ultimately (and riskily) won the game.

Oliver added that producing more evidence can only address a rational route for decision making, and it should be remembered that not all policy decisions are made rationally but are instead based on personal experiences and emotions. In answer to the question, how much evidence is ‘enough’, Oliver responded that it depends on both the context of the policy decision and also the means by which the researcher wants to use the evidence to feed into a policy decision.

She highlighted a number of different ways to submit evidence to a policy process, such as, feeding evidence to parliaments through formal review processes, inputting evidence through research council’s evidence briefings or even holding elected parliamentarians to account for their use or misuse of evidence, through voting or participating in public campaigns for better evidence.

Questions raised by the audience covered whether there is a hierarchy of evidence and whether researchers should be stealth advocates or honest brokers of their research. When asked how evidence can be involved in irrational policy decisions, Oliver responded that it would have to play an informative as opposed to an arbitrative role.

The main takeaway message from the event was simply that there is no hard and fast rule on how much evidence is ‘enough’.

A report from the event can be found on the University of Manchester’s Policy Blog here.