Policy-based evidence making

March 25, 2013

(c) BBC 2013Heads up: on 30th May I’ll be in Warwick to help give an advanced training session on  ‘Knowledge for Policy, Knowledge of Policy’, organised by the university’s Centre for Interdiscplinary Methodologies.

Evidence-based policymaking was a central trope of New Labour’s time in office.  The idea’s gone in deep: the Coalition is regularly taken to task for ideological policymaking – perhaps one reason  why the Cabinet Office has just announced a major network of ‘What Works’ Centres.

One immediate objection to evidence-driven policy is that evidence doesn’t tell you what you ought to do.  Political values and judgements – even ‘ideology’ – have their place, especially if the alternative is the apolitical solutionism that Evgeny Morozov has been taking to pieces recently.

There’s also an important role for an experimental state which builds an evidence base where none exists.  Sometimes this is pretty uncontroversial, as in the small nudges being tried out by the Government’s Behavioural Insights Team. It’s tougher to make the case in bigger areas of policy – such as devolution to local govt and communities, which has  never been seriously tried in the UK, where the risks of failure are massive, and where there are limits to what we can learn from abroad.  Here, the need for careful piloting is running up against Ministerial enthusiasm for transformational change.

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What does this mean for researchers, especially academics? It’s important to have a clear sense of the policymaking process,  especially the invisible work which goes on between formal consultations and policy events; how policymakers treat different  kinds of evidence and actors in those processes, and the shifting positions of academics and think tanks in the ideas market.

I’ve co-founded a think tank, worked in central government and am now working in academia, so I’ll be bringing some of  these experiences to the seminar.  Also speaking will be Dave O’Brien (City University) and Will Davies (Warwick), who’s organising the session.  Both have similarly heterodox experiences, so it should be a fascinating day … see this post by Will, for instance.

Details here.

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