- Linda Courtenay BotterillLinda Courtenay BotterillProfessor in Australian Politics and Head of the School of Government and Policy, University of Canberra
Since the late 1990s, increased attention has been given by governments and scholars to evidence-based policymaking (EBPM). The use of the term EBPM appears to have emerged with the election of Tony Blair’s government in the United Kingdom (UK) and a desire to be seen to be taking ideology and politics out of the policy process. The focus was on drawing on research-based evidence to inform policymakers about “what works” and thereby produce better policy outcomes. In this sense, evidence-based policy is arguably a new label for an old concern. The relationship between knowledge, research, and policy has been a focus of scholarly attention for decades—Annette Boaz and her colleagues date it to as early as 1895 (Boaz et al., 2008, p. 234).
In its more recent form, EBPM has been the subject of much debate in the literature, particularly through critiques that question its assumptions about the nature of the policy process, the validity of evidence, the skewing in favor of certain types of evidence, and the potentially undemocratic implications. The first concern with the concept is that the EBPM movement runs counter to the lessons of the critique of rational-comprehensive approaches to policymaking that was launched so effectively in Lindblom’s article “The Science of ‘Muddling Through’” and never really refuted, in spite of attempts by advocates of the policy cycle and other rational models.
The second problem is that the rhetoric of evidence-based policy does not recognize the contested nature of evidence itself, an area that has been the subject of a large body of research in the fields of the sociology of science and science and technology studies. These studies draw attention to the value-laden nature of scientific inquiry and the choices that are made about what to research and how to undertake that research.
Third, the emphasis has been on particular types of evidence, with particular methodologies being privileged over others, running the risk that what counts as evidence is only what can be counted or presented in a particular way. The choice of evidence is value-laden and political in itself.
Finally, attempts to take the ideology or politics out of policy are also potentially undemocratic. Policymaking is the business of politics. In democratic systems, politicians are elected to implement their policies, and those policies are based on particular sets of values. Leaders are elected to make collective decisions on behalf of the electorate and those decisions are based on judgments, including value judgments. Evidence surely must inform this process, but, equally, it cannot be decisive. Trade-offs are required between conflicting values, such as between equity and efficiency, and this can include deciding between solutions that the evidence suggests are optimal and other societal priorities.