Jasper Montana and James Wilsdon
After a period in which the onward march of evidence-informed decision-making appeared to be faltering in countries such as the US and UK, the acute uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic have triggered a fresh explosion of engagement with evidence and policy interactions – from diverse disciplinary, sectoral and institutional perspectives.
It’s become common to see this described as an evidence ‘movement’ committed to strengthening links between science and policy – and in a superficial sense it is. But such labels can obscure subtle yet important distinctions in the way different actors understand problems in evidence-policy interactions and frame potential solutions.
In our article recently published in Evidence and Policy, we explore this heterogeneity among those engaged in evidence-policy debates. Our study involved a series of semi-structured interviews with a cross-section of professionals in the UK evidence and policy field.
Our interviewees highlighted three roles that individuals might play. We describe these roles using the concept of discourse coalitions, which was first developed by the political scientist Maarten Hajer in 1990s as a means of analysing the links between groups of actors, their practices and the discourses – ideas, concepts and categories – that they use to define social and physical reality.
We identified three discourse coalitions of evidence and policy in the UK:
- an analytical coalition, which typically theorises evidence and policy relations in a way that matches empirical observations;
- an advocacy coalition, which typically normatively refines and prescribes particular evidence and policy relations; and
- an application coalition, which typically evaluates the contextual conditions and enacts techniques to bring evidence into policy and practice.
The defining characteristics of these three coalitions are shown in the table below. These discourse coalitions form around storylines that offer distinct framings of the evidence and policy problem, and in light of these problems, define the practices required to address them, the people involved and priorities for the field’s development.
It might be tempting to assume that the discourse coalitions are fixed sets of people, such as researchers or policy professionals. But we found that these coalitions do not occupy specific physical spaces or forums, such as universities or government agencies. Instead, their roles are defined by the problem spaces that they create through discourses – ideas, concepts and categories – and related practices. They use discourse to generate a shared framing of the challenges of evidence and policy that research and practice are intended to illuminate and solve.
This typology of perspectives and roles can help to elucidate some current tensions in the field:
First, the continued growth of the evidence and policy field has prompted calls for researchers and practitioners to consolidate the lessons learned to date and build a more united and holistic agenda across policy domains from medicine to defence. Recognising that there are different discourse coalitions signifies that there may also be unbridgeable realities that need to be taken into account. Not everyone will agree on the appropriateness of terminology, such as evidence-based policy or the use of particular methods such as systematic reviews, because these reflect differing perceptions of what the problem they are trying to address is.
Second, the discourse coalitions represent a range of roles that can be assumed by any given individual. And, they are not mutually independent. A scientific advisor can assume the role of an analyst in the morning, while discussing the nature of scientific advice with a journalist and an applicator in the afternoon, when working through a policy problem with a policymaker. As such, we suggest that the typology offers a way for researchers and practitioners to be more aware of the positions that they and others around them assume at different times. This may help to foster improved empathy, collaboration and consolidation in the field.
If the use of evidence in policymaking has the broad support that many believe it has, then the distinct priorities in these three coalitions signify different visions for the field. And, if we are to progress, these different visions need to be made visible and negotiated.
Jasper Montana is a Research Fellow at the University of Oxford with an interest in the design and operation of science and policy institutions for addressing global challenges.
You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy:
Montana, J. and Wilsdon, J. (2021). Analysts, advocates and applicators: three discourse coalitions of UK evidence and policy. Evidence & Policy, DOI: 10.1332/174426421X16112601473449. [Open Access]
Image credit: James Wilsdon
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