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Does evidence still matter? What works now?


The idea of evidence based public policy has been fundamental to policy making since it first came to prominence over 20 years ago. Events around the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as US President are often seen as emblematic of a shift towards populism and ‘post-truth’ politics. Does evidence still matter?

At a glance

In a paper for Public Money and Management, academics from Kingston University and the University of St Andrews present findings from an international review of the evidence based policy paradigm. While interest and investment in evidence use may have ebbed and flowed, it has not abated.

Evidence still animates policy debates and practice decisions. The paper highlights ten strands of continuity and change in the use of evidence over the past two decades.

1. A more realistic view of its influence has emerged

Economic austerity, populist movements and the emergence of a post-truth discourse now provide a very different environment for evidence use. There has been a gradual shift to an ‘evidence-informed’ as opposed to an ‘evidence-based’ discourse.

This highlights more realistic assumptions about the contribution that evidence and experts can make alongside other influences such as ideology, stakeholder interests and public opinion.

2. Central government is the main investor in evidence-use initiatives

In the UK, public expenditure cuts, politics and changing priorities has meant variations in investment levels in evidence. Despite a climate of austerity, there has been significant investment in supply-side infrastructures such as the establishment of the What Works Centres network.

3. Short- to medium-term investment

Most funding for evidence-use initiatives is short term (up to two years) or medium term (three to five years). Short-term funds can limit ambition and effectiveness as well as create continuity and sustainability issues. Developing sustainable funding models and enduring relations between producers, users and intermediaries is necessary if:

  • the field is to stabilise
  • gains made are retained
  • secure foundations for the future are developed.

4. The what works question still dominates

Many evidence-use initiatives still focus on identifying what works—determining effective approaches to addressing problems. This narrow focus has prompted criticism and calls to address other policy and practice questions, such as:

  • how grave a problem is
  • what its root causes might be
  • what its wider implications are.

5. How to improve, categorise and label evidence

Debates about the hallmarks of good evidence have been shaped by the dominance of the what works agenda and the approach of evidence-based medicine. This has resulted in:

  • prioritising randomised trials when assessing intervention effectiveness
  • evidence hierarchies with systematic reviews of randomised trials at their apex.

Evidence matrices have emerged where types of research design are differently rated by the question being addressed. These matrices still under-value knowledge emerging from service organisations, policy and practitioners, and service users.

6. Combining research-based evidence with knowledge

Research-based evidence alone is not sufficient to determine a policy direction. A range of actors and ways of knowing need to be involved to create and use knowledge in pursuit of better policy. There has been greater urgency in identifying more effective ways of integrating diverse forms of knowledge together.

7. Limited evidence use

There is:

  • an enduring concern that policies and public services (whether policies or practices) are not underpinned by evidence or formal evaluation
  • a growing appreciation of the limitations of supply-side initiatives because of the way they conceptualise evidence as a product to be transferred from producers to users.

8. Relationships between evidence producers and users

Building relationships between evidence producers and users to improve evidence use has taken many forms including:

  • network-building
  • putting in place designated knowledge-brokering individuals and/or organisations
  • embedding researchers in practice settings
  • establishing research-practice partnerships.

Funding for such initiatives has increased but is still relatively small scale. While relationship-building initiatives are common, they tend to be piecemeal and project-based.

9. Building multi-faceted systems for evidence use

There has been growing support for a more ‘whole systems’ approach to improving evidence use. However, a lack of practical tools and guidance means it is difficult to operationalise the idea into action. Growing interest in the idea of evidence ecosystems is a promising development but has yet to live up to the promise.

10. Participation at the margins

There is greater acceptance of the need to include service users and the public as partners in how evidence is interpreted and used to shape policy and practice. However, translating these expectations into participation is still a challenge, not least because power imbalances are pervasive. Despite these groups having a seat at the table in policy debates and in evidence-use initiatives, their involvement remains at the margins.

Why it matters

The ten strands emphasise the progress made in creating and using evidence in policy and public services:

  • problems are understood better
  • the field is attracting more funding from diverse sources
  • the role of multiple stakeholders (including service users and the public) in promoting evidence use is more widely recognised.

They also highlight the work that still has to be done:

  • keeping an open discourse about the types of evidence needed to support policy and practice
  • doing more than simply collating and disseminating knowledge
  • securing more long-term funding for initiatives in the field.

Want to read more?

New development: What works now? Continuity and change in the use of evidence to improve public policy and service delivery – Sandra Nutley, Annette Boaz, Huw Davies & Alec Fraser, Public Money & Management, Volume 39, 2019 – Issue 4

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