Evidence-based policy as a political ideal

Jesper Ahlin Marceta

If the people decide where to go, should experts decide how to get there? In the so-called evidence-based policy (EBP) movement, the general answer is yes. EBP proponents want to strengthen the ties between science and politics.

Suppose, for instance, that the voters in a country have decided that carbon emissions from industries should never exceed a certain threshold. Which policy is best if this goal is to be attained; higher taxes on pollution, or a trade market on carbon allowances?

EBP proponents would argue that scientific knowledge and methods should be consulted in the policy decision. If there is no clear evidence in favor of one policy over the other, some EBP proponents would even suggest that evidence should be created through social experiments; raise the taxes on pollution in one place and set up a trade market on carbon allowances in another, then evaluate which policy performs best.

To many, the EBP ideology is highly intuitive: “Of course politics should be based on evidence!” Others are skeptical. Some argue that while EBP may sound great in theory it does not work in practice. This group of critics can be called realists.

Realists about EBP concede that it is possible that evidence can inform policy in particular policy decisions. Real-world politics usually involves an exchange between elected representatives and their advisors, epistemic authorities at universities and in public committees, and political commentators, among others. References to different sources of evidence are commonplace in this exchange. In fact, it is difficult or even impossible to contribute to the process of public policy making unless one can refer to reliable sources of evidence. Providing reasons for and against decisions and actions is central to democratic governance—that is why fact-checking is part of journalist’s job description.

What realists criticise is the idea that EBP can be achieved as an overarching political aim or agenda. For instance, Brian W. Head argues that “we cannot expect to construct a policy system that is fuelled primarily by objective research findings. Creating more systematic linkages between rigorous research and the processes of policy-making would require long and complex effort at many levels” (Head 2010, p. 80). Linda Courtenay Botterill and Andrew Hindmoor write that it is ’naïve‘ to believe that EBP can be attained by a more scientifically informed and designed policy process (Botterill and Hindmoor 2012, p. 369). Perhaps most straightforwardly, Richard D. French claims that “the majority of proponents of EBP do not grasp the realities of policy-making” (French 2018, p. 429).

However, what if EBP is interpreted as a political ideal instead of as something that could in fact be realised in practice? That would leave EBP proponents less vulnerable to the charge that their political views are unrealistic, as ideals do not have to be realistic to be valuable in politics.

Idealist EBP proponents would argue that EBP can function as an organising principle, much like compasses do; a compass does not point at a final end, but in which direction we should move. Furthermore, an EBP ideal would enable voters to assess their representatives’ policies and hold them accountable for their policy decisions. For instance, claims such as “you should have known that the other policy would have been better, therefore I will not vote for you next year,” seem to gain some of their power from the notion that policy should ideally be evidence-based.

So-called counter-idealists would point at flaws in the arguments for the EBP ideal, or in the ideal as such. For instance, EBP idealists believe that the only value attached to public policy is instrumental rationality, i.e., that the means should suit the chosen ends. But what about other values, such as symbolism and dignity? It seems that EBP proponents need to justify their chosen value with substantial moral arguments.

What is more, instrumental rationality is often valuable, such as when combatting climate change. But sometimes inefficiency is preferable. For instance, it is under debate in various liberal democracies whether public officials should be granted the right to track people over GPS to map how the COVID-19 virus spreads. This may not be (overly) problematic as an independent policy. However, taken together with other policies – such as far-stretching emergency powers granted to the government and extensive rights granted to the police – it could have a distressful and irreversible impact on liberal democratic values and institutions. EBP idealists commit to instrumental rationality in the many small steps on the road to moral decay, blind to their combined effects. It is therefore a problem that the EBP ideal is neutral about which changes in society are desirable and not.

The discussion of the pros and cons of EBP as a political ideal demonstrates that there is a principled, or philosophical, dimension to it. It would be worthwhile to explore that dimension further. A deeper philosophical understanding of EBP is useful in public policy making, as it reveals aspects of different policy decisions that would otherwise have remained unseen. Public policy making is not only about choosing the instrumentally most rational alternative. It also deals with accountability, symbolism, dignity, political directions, and much else.

Therefore, the philosophy of EBP and EBP idealism is important. Both proponents and critics should make their voices heard to stimulate a principled discussion about the values involved with evidence-based public policy making.


This post was originally published by Transforming Society on 15 April 2020.

You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy:

Ahlin Marceta, J. (2020) The evidence-based policy movement and political idealism, Evidence & Policy, DOI: 10.1332/174426420X15825349438945.

Image credit: GoodIdeas on Shutterstock


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