‘Some things cannot be measured’: the limits of evidence-based policy


Evidence-based policy is a powerful notion that has entered the public lexicon in recent years. But, like another well-worn idea, agile, it has become increasingly debased as it has grown in popularity.

Evidence-based policy is now invoked to provide a supposedly apolitical, scientific solution to any number of problems, many of which are primarily about ideology and values.

The pursuit of data and evidence can improve our knowledge of what’s happening on the ground and inform our response, but it can’t give us the answers to everything.

It’s important to remember the limits of evidence-based policy, argued Melbourne School of Government foundation director Professor Helen Sullivan at Monday’s Power to Persuade symposium in Melbourne. “We start focusing on those people who are seduced by the slogans. Not us, it’s those people. And that’s really dangerous.”

Plenty of important social policy questions are difficult to evaluate and cannot be reduced to a set of numbers or a formula.

FREE membership to The Mandarin

Receive unlimited access, get all the latest public sector news and features, plus The Juice, our daily news update sent direct to your inbox.

The Mandarin is where Australia's public sector leaders discuss their work and the issues faced within modern bureaucracy. Join today to discover the latest in public administration thinking and news from our dedicated reporters, current and former agency heads and senior executives.