Why we accept travesties of ‘evidence-based’ policymaking


Evidence-based policy … if everyone claims to want it, and practice it, why do so many ‘announceables’ get glowing report cards without the slightest tinkering? Nicholas Gruen on the problems with policy evaluation.

Calling for policy to be more ‘‘evidence-based” rolls off the tongue with beguiling ease. What’s there not to like?

Yet a closer look reveals that policy has always been, and remains today, a largely evidence-free zone. In this essay I want to explore the forces that bring this about with my next piece proposing some steps toward a solution.

The flow of information is central to governance. That’s why specifying standard weights and measures turns up as part of the sovereign’s role in Magna Carta. The integrity of the information flow is, if you’ll pardon the tautology, integral to the package. So it’s not surprising vouchsafing the integrity of accounts also goes back centuries. The UK National Audit Office traces its lineage to the auditor of the exchequer in 1314. “For all the talking up his own wonkish commitment to evidence-based policymaking, little was done to build public sector capability or practice … ”

Integrity institutions like the auditor-general came into their own in the nineteenth century. But if the professionalisation of audit arose from the increasing complexity of government, what’s developed since draws us well beyond the basic idea of audit for integrity.

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  • cscoxk

    Evidence will never be gathered while government administrative systems use the principle of hypothecation. This principle means that there is little systematic reporting of benefits of a project or policy. Workers are judged on how close their cost estimates are to what they spent.

  • Brigette Metzler

    As a ‘coal face worker’ and a person hoping to start on a PhD shortly, I have just two small comments. 1: sometimes, we get the evaluation correct. Have a look at the years of work and ongoing evaluation of the Department of Human Services’ Paid Parental Leave scheme. I’ve both studied this as a part of honours coursework and also have seen it from the ‘coal face’. I think it was pretty exemplary as a policy cycle. On the other hand, I think we need to encourage ‘coal face’ workers to engage more in both policy review and academia. There’s very little published work from the point of view of the people on the service delivery side of things, and I think this is common around the world, much to policy makers great loss.

    • Paddy Mohan

      “There’s very little published work from the point of view of the people on the service delivery side of things” – not sure if you are referring to the client’s point of view or the frontline worker’s point of view. There are good journal articles on the role of frontline workers in relation to service delivery; I use the following search terms: “street level bureaucrats AND service delivery” or alternatively, terms like “networks”, “frontline workers”, “implementation”, etc.