To understand evidence use, understand the goals of decision makers


Justin Parkhurst

What does it mean to use evidence in policymaking? This seemingly simple question has been remarkably under-defined in all the calls for increased use of evidence. Indeed, many of those who champion ‘evidence-based policymaking’ do little to explain what it means for a policy to be evidence-based, and have trouble explaining what evidence use actually means when decision makers have multiple competing goals and social concerns. Evidence is simply seen as a good thing – and more use is better – without really considering what that means or what happens when there is disagreement around which evidence to use for what goals.

Policy scholars who study evidence, on the other hand, have approached the issue from the perspective that ‘evidence use’ can mean any number of things within a policy setting. The literature can, therefore, appear divided into two extremes: either evidence use is taken for granted to be a known (assumed to be good) thing, with little consideration of political realities, or alternatively it is seen as multidimensional, the form of which is constructed by the nature of policy ideas, processes, and interactions.

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