By Ashleigh Weeden, MPA
In 2005, Tomas Dye asked “Does the government generally know what it is doing? Even if programs and policies are well organized, efficiently operated, adequately financed, and generally well supported by major interest groups, we may still want to ask, so what? Do they work?” (p. 332). The increasingly complex nature of the challenges facing our societies requires that we match the best of contemporary research to the most pressing policy goals of our institutions – but developing evidence-based policy remains challenging for everyone involved (for the true nerds among us, take a peek at French, 2018; James & Lodge, 2003; Oliver, Innvar, Lorenc, Woodman, & Thomas, 2014 for detailed reviews).
So how do we avoid Carol Weiss’s prediction that “Most policy research is probably born to die unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air” (1995, p. 146; cf. French, 2018, p. 436)? Four key elements may help us build a better policy together:
- What do we mean by evidence?
What we mean by evidence - is it lived experience? scholarly research? internal policy analysis? analysis provided by external consultants hired by issue? or something else entirely? Our answer may change depending on goals, and our framing has critical implications for what evidence is sought, considered, or used. Challenging assumptions about what ‘counts’ as evidence is just as important for researchers as it is for policy-makers and encourages us to make deliberate choices about balancing multiple ways of knowing, learning, and experiencing the world.
- Minding our p’s and q’s: Big ‘P’ politics, small ‘p’ politics, and asking the right questions
It’s naïve to think politics doesn’t play a part here. Changing political priorities, both in terms of elected decision makers and the organizational dynamics of policy shops and research institutions alike, play a major role in determining which issues are championed. Political acumen is every bit as important in the researcher’s toolkit as good data collection methods. Asking the right questions (what problem are we actually solving? What evidence does it require?) to the right people (who are the gate-keepers? Who are the decision-makers?) is critical to being heard in the increasingly noisy arena of policy advice.
- Pathways, not pipelines
It would be a lot easier if the evidence-to-policy process was a direct pipeline where an issue is identified, analyzed, and then put in front of decision-makers for an official policy directive. In reality, evidence is rarely used as a direct solution for a policy problem, and more likely to serve as the contextual background for policy development. Evidence also finds its way into the policy process through surprising sources, including media interviews, independent podcasts, blog-posts, and conversations in the elevator. Researchers would must cast a wide net with their work in order to find multiple entry points into the policy cycle.
- It depends…
Data is important, but context is queen. We tend to assume that what works for getting evidence into health policy will work for economic development or agriculture or any other portfolio. But there is no universal strategy or format for developing knowledge mobilization – and what works in one context might not be considered valid in another. Evidence for public policy must be shared in ways that respond to local contexts and needs, as well as technical results.
Finally, it’s important to remember that all of this happens at a human scale and through relationships. Both policy makers and researchers must curb their assumptions about the motives, skills, and priorities of the other in order to negotiate evidence-based policy. The most effective mechanism for doing so is through direct and sustained relationship building that enables curious, courageous conversations where everyone feels responsible for answering our collective ‘so what’. We’re not going to save the world by briefing note – you really do have to extend your hand and say hello.
Dye, T. (2005). Understanding public policy (11th Ed). New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.
French, R. D. (2018). Lessons from the evidence on evidence-based policy. Canadian Public Administration, 61(3), 425–442. https://doi.org/10.1111/capa.12295
James, O., & Lodge, M. (2003). The Limitations of ‘Policy Transfer’ and ‘Lesson Drawing’ for Public Policy Research. Political Studies Review, 1(2), 179–193. https://doi.org/10.1111/1478-9299.t01-1-00003
Oliver, K., Innvar, S., Lorenc, T., Woodman, J., & Thomas, J. (2014). A systematic review of barriers to and facilitators of the use of evidence by policymakers. BMC Health Services Research, 14(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1186/1472-6963-14-2
Weiss, C. (1995). The haphazard connection: social science and public policy. International Journal of Educational Research, 23(2), 137-150.
S. Ashleigh Weeden, MPA, is an award-winning rural community innovator currently pursuing a PhD in the School of Environmental Design and Rural Development at the University of Guelph. Her research is focused on innovation and policy forecasting for rural futures, knowledge mobilization, community capacity building, and public policy renewal. You can learn more about her work at www.ruraldev.ca/ashleigh-weeden and at www.ruralfutures.ca