Claire Bynner and Anna Terje
In a recent article published in Evidence & Policy, we explored the use of Aristotle’s three knowledge types: empirical knowledge, technical knowledge and practical wisdom, in the everyday work and decision-making of frontline public service professionals.
Our qualitative case study of a Scottish local authority revealed the importance of integrating and recognising the different types of knowledge that are needed to respond to complex policy problems, often referred to as ‘wicked’ problems. Understanding the craft of integrating different types of knowledge, and valuing what can be learnt from frontline workers, is key in achieving impactful evidence-informed policy.
In the current context of a rapidly changing policy landscape resulting from COVID-19, making policy decisions informed by the most appropriate types of evidence is crucial. In this blog, we discuss how Aristotle’s knowledge types can help us understand the types of evidence that should be considered in this ever changing landscape.
The knowledge types
Three types of knowledge and evidence are needed to make effective policy decisions. The first of these is episteme or empirical knowledge – this knowledge is based on evidence that verifies if a claim is true or false, usually derived from observation and experiments. The second, techne, technical knowledge, makes use of a practical rationality and is governed by a specific goal. The third, phronesis, or practical wisdom, makes use of experience to weigh up alternatives and make judgments based on public value and social justice.
Employing the knowledge types in decision-making in the context of COVID-19
Empirical knowledge is crucial in making policy decisions that have an impact on the physical, financial and emotional wellbeing of individuals during a pandemic. For example, empirical data on social security claimants demonstrates the scale of financial distress caused by the coronavirus pandemic. In early April 2020, new claims for social security in Scotland were four times that of pre-COVID-19 levels. Empirical evidence shows that health inequalities are likely to widen as a result of the wider economic and health effects of social distancing measures.
As our prior research demonstrated, technical knowledge is key to solving practical problems, because it involves applying a set of rules and principles. Public services, delivered by the voluntary and the stator sector, have been responding to the new and evolving government guidance on ‘virus-proofing’ to ensure the safe delivery of services. In doing so, it is necessary to apply the technical knowledge of each type of service provision. Face-to-face contact with members of the public requires careful planning and risk assessment, as well as the implementation of policies on workplace cleaning, face coverings and physical distancing measures.
Practical wisdom, arguably the most challenging and complex of the knowledge types, was identified in our research as something that could be gained through collective and individual learning, resulting in the ability to combine different forms of evidence with empathy and value judgments on what action to take in a specific situation. This requires the ability to recognise the complexity of various policy contexts, and the importance of weighing up options and considering the social justice implications. Practical wisdom, is concerned with public values and decisions taken in light of the collective public good. In the context of COVID-19, this has entailed making difficult policy judgments on public protection measures, balancing issues such as health inequalities; the widening gap in education; housing inequality; worsening mental health; and digital exclusion against the risk of a rapidly rising mortality rate and more years of life lost from COVID-19.
In our article, we argued for the need for decision-makers to develop the interpretive skills that allow them to weave together these various forms of knowledge and evidence. This entails listening to those working at the front-line of service delivery and working across professional boundaries and hierarchies. Politicians and service providers need to take account of all three knowledge types to best serve the needs of those suffering the worst effects of COVID-19.
Dr Claire Bynner is a research fellow in public policy, based at the College of Social Sciences, University of Glasgow. Her research interests include neighbourhoods, poverty and public participation in local governance. She leads the research team for Children’s Neighbourhoods Scotland.
Dr Anna Terje is a postdoctoral researcher, based in the Division of Rural Health and Wellbeing at the University of the Highlands and Islands. Her research interests include health inequalities, social prescribing, community, place and belonging.
You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy:
Bynner, C. and Terje, A. (2020). Knowledge mobilisation in public service reform: integrating empirical, technical and practical wisdom. Evidence & Policy, DOI: 10.1332/174426419X15757178659704.
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