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Building a Case for Evidence-Based Policy Making

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The Minister for Government Policy, Rt Hon Oliver Letwin MP, once said: "If you ask me for evidence, my evidence is the whole history of the world." Behind the cogs and outer workings of any public service that citizens use today lies evidence. For a doctor to make a diagnosis, he or she will need evidence to back up the theories stemming from the patient's symptoms. For a police officer to obtain a warrant, he or she will need evidence to present to the courts, justifying his or her suspicions. Without evidence, the very nature of our claims would be easily refuted. So when it comes to the ministers and public servants writing and enacting policies, wouldn't evidence be just as useful?

Despite years of attempting to make policy more evidence-based, ministers and civil servants still feel that this is a great area of weakness in government today. This was the key finding of a recent report produced by the Institute of Government, based on a series of seminars that explored the changing nature of the evidence landscape and the potential barriers inhibiting the use of evidence and evaluation in policy making today. Although there have been some steps in the right direction - the Cabinet Office's behavioural insights team is doing pioneering work in applying randomised control trials to develop policy - there is still a disconnect between theories around evidence-based policy and actual practice.

The reason for this disconnect can be put down to a variety of 'supply' and 'demand' barriers. 'Supply' barriers relate to the amount and availability of evidence - data from randomised control trials, experiments and qualitative feedback - for civil servants and ministers. The 'demand' barriers address the urgency, need and interest felt by stakeholders, government actors and civil servants in using evidence to inform their policies.

The demand barriers are perhaps the most significant; they imply a lack of interest or incentive from decision makers and policy enforcers towards commissioning evidence and using data to transform services. In fact, one 'demand' barrier identified was the lack of culture and skills within the public sector in using rigorous evidence. Another is the fact that evidence-based decisions carry a political risk if they lead to measures which are unpopular with the electorate. Sometimes this results in values being applied in preference to evidence, or selective use of data/evidence to support the more popular policy. This can be difficult to get round but more use of evidence-based decision-making generally, can only help with tackling this issue.

There were concerns from the seminar attendees that civil servants lack the skills, behaviour and culture to provide the basis for a more analytic approach to government problem solving. The biggest challenge is the lack of data scientists needed to turn data into results. Much of the 'new data' being received now - through citizen feedback and census records for example - is becoming rapidly available thanks to the Internet. But how capable is the public sector of dealing with this accumulating data?

Differences in culture around the use of evidence was noted - the Department for Work and Pensions is traditionally strong on analysis, whereas the Department for Transport has highly developed methods for appraisal but is weaker on analysis of data. So if the attitude towards evidence is somewhat indifferent, how do we change these perceptions to encourage evidence use in policy making? The concept of naming and shaming departments that are weak on evidence has been suggested. Although some politicians feel that this idea might not affect 'hard-bitten ministers' in the desired way.

The availability of good, useable and unbiased data is one of the primary 'supply' barriers affecting the use of evidence in policy making. In today's big data age, the sheer amount of information on citizens, services and industries is overwhelming. Few organisations know how to correctly tap into this information to inform decisions. The Institute of Government's report argues that too often government departments didn't have good administrative data to answer simple but important questions on policies' aims. More transparency and openness around data increases the opportunity and potential for research, but this doesn't translate to useable information. There are implementation challenges for government in turning existing data sets into insights that justify their actions to the public. Big data analytics would certainly address this challenge.

Addressing the perceptions ministers and civil servants currently have towards data, and ensuring that government departments have the appropriate resources and skills to analyse citizen data, is what will ultimately help improve the use of evidence to inform policy.