Why policymakers ignore evidence

By Professor Gerry Stoker, Politics & International Relations

Speak to many University colleagues and they will report what appears to be a common experience: evidence carefully collected and assembled about significant societal concerns, and what to do about them, are presented to policy makers and then promptly ignored. How can this frustrating process best be understood? The dozen explanations I offer are less to do with the political process being corrupt and have more to do with its complexities which academics from all disciplines need to understand and respect.

One common rationalization offered by those that suffer the experience of being de facto ignored (notwithstanding some lip service that might be paid to the importance of evidence especially if the work is commissioned by policy makers) is that policy makers, especially politicians are driven by perverse incentives that lead them to embrace ignorance rather than the insight offered by the knowledge and wisdom of my University colleagues. Politicians, I am told, have short-term desires to get re-elected and advance their careers, so evidence matters little save what it delivers on those fronts. Explanation number 1 is often shortly followed by a second disparaging swipe. Politicians are beholden to powerful interests that can substitute their self-serving claims into the policy process, washing away the impact of more rigorously and transparently scrutinised evidence produced within academia.

There are times when these two cynical traits are in play and explain the “listening but listening policymakers” phenomena. But I want to argue there are other factors more often at work that reflect less the perversity of politics and more its complexity. The good news is that these factors can be ameliorated to some degree by the way that academics behave. For that reason fatalism about politics in response to the experience of appearing to be ignored should be tempered by a better understanding of how politics works. There are 10 movable obstacles (MOs let’s call them) to add to the two more depressing blockages usually identified, giving me my dozen factors.

MO1: A primary question for the policymaker is: why should I pay attention to this issue rather than many others? When academics enter the policy process they naturally assume that process started when they entered but of course it didn’t. There are only limited windows of opportunity when an issue become sufficiently pressing to encourage a focus on it. Understanding the rhythms of policy making around manifestos, big speeches, set piece agenda setting opportunities around the budget or the Queen’s Speech or other much more low-key developments can help with getting the timing of the intervention right. Part of the art of having an impact is being in the right place at the right time and then, of course, being able to go when the opportunity presents itself.

MO2: Policymakers will sometimes say and often think: bring me solutions not just problems. Academic research is often more focused on identifying an issue of concern and its dynamics rather than focusing on potential actions or interventions (they may get mentioned in the last paragraph of a report). Explanation of what is plainly central to what we do but academics could perhaps do more to take on the challenge of designing solutions. There remains an issue still in that academics often couch their arguments in terms of the limits of the evidence and policymakers might in turn seek a more definitive position. Again this concern is not an insurmountable and one response is for the academic to take the position of “honest broker” laying out options and choices for the policy maker. For some good reflections on this point see here.

MO3: If an intervention is identified that should work it is still subject to challenge about its administrative, financial and political feasibility? The question for policymakers is not can it be done but rather can it be done by government? Showing that a policy response proposed is right (a solution to the identified problem) is only half that battle, if that. For the policymaker it’s not what works that matters; it’s what’s feasible that matters. Can the challenges of administration, resourcing and political support and ownership be met? When academics step into the world of policymaking they should be sensitive and as informed as possible about these challenges; avoid giving the appearance of naivety, this is not a strong selling point when trying to persuade.

MO4: The question for the policymaker is not simply-do I support this policy- but rather how much energy and political capital would I have to expend to make the policy win through against opposition from other sources? Policymakers know that there are only a limited number of things they can realistically achieve and they may have other more pressing priorities. Picking the policymaker both able and willing to run with a policy is by no means easy but academics need to be aware of this factor in the policymaking process and think clearly about how to make the policy appear doable.

MO5: Let’s say that a cadre of policymakers buy the idea of doing something but their enthusiasm then gets tested in the wider arena of policymaking. They have to show not only that the policy will beat the problem, that it is feasible and doable but that it can also win in response to the “opportunity costs” question? The policymaker will be asked: if we spend time, money and effort on this proposal what are we not going to be doing that we should have already been doing? Policy is a competition for time in a very time poor environment. There are many issues and so little time; academics know that about their research activities so need to remember that it applies with even more force in the world of policy.

MO6: Networks matter in research and they matter in policymaking as well. It’s not normal for ideas from an unknown source to be easily embraced and this is true for many areas of life. Politicians and policymakers, in particular, have survived in their careers by being suspicious to some degree. They will always ask in their heads at least: are you selling me a pup? Policymaking does rely to a large extent on trust in source and status in network so academics need to build both their trust and status if they want to be taken seriously. Years or decades even of non-engagement, followed by a sudden step on to the policy stage proclaiming solutions, is an unlikely formula for success.

MO7: In some ways the point is so obvious that it’s amazing how often it gets overlooked: politicians and other policymakers believe in things. They have preferences, philosophical positions (some more coherent than others) and even ideologies about what the world should be and how it should be changed: that is both ends and means are political choices. Therefore values matter in the policy process alongside evidence. The “what works” rhetoric can imply that choices are entirely technical but nothing could be further from reality in democratic policymaking. Choice is about whether a policy matches the chooser’s desired means and goals and understanding that is essential for all academics and democrats. Moreover academics are not immune from having values, preferences and ideologies and though we try to guard against their impact on our research there is no denying that they can have an impact especially on what we choose to research and the manner in which that research is presented.

MO8: Nothing is certain and a policy can be killed by fear of unintended consequences. The probabilities suggest- the language of much scientific discourse- may not be strong enough to stop a wave of fear about unintended consequences. Academics rightly want to be clear about the limits of the evidence but they should also be keen to pre-identify and try to undermine spurious objections to their findings. Opponents of any measure tend to frame their arguments along standard lines: it will not achieve the desired effect or worse it will have perverse effects or worse still it will jeopardised much cherished other gains. Understanding how interventions are going to be challenged should be something that academics should be aware of when they engage.

MO9: If you have got this far in the blog you might be feeling a little depressed. Here is my attempt to cheer you up. All the previously mentioned obstacles can be overcome and your research could indeed lead to a policy intervention; only for implementation failure to undermine it. OK maybe I need to work on my skills for relieving depression but the key point is that the implementation concern is one that if addressed can be met as well. But it needs to be addressed. The forces of opposition to a policy do not stop once it’s adopted.

MO10: “Events, dear boy, events” is an alleged explanation that former British PM Harold Macmillan offered as to why achieving anything in politics is so difficult. The unpredictable, sudden crisis can blow a carefully evidenced and prepared policy process of course. Just as in nature where we learning that changes in woods/forests, for example, are driven by as much by major events as slow environmental change so it is in politics that all that appeared solid and definite can suddenly melt and become an arena of uncertainty. There are many coping strategies to deal with this phenomenon but they all boil down to: if at first you do not succeed then try and try again.

Well that’s the dozen reasons for the gaping hole that often exists between evidence from academia and the policy process. Let’s make it a baker’s dozen by reminding ourselves that occasionally the problem is that academics communicate their insights with such a level of jargon, complexity and extreme length that no policymaker, even the most willing, could be persuaded to take the ideas seriously. I hope that I have avoided unclear terminology but I am aware this post has taking up a lot of space. And that seems a good point at which to stop.

Professor Gerry Stoker is a Professor of Governance, Director of the Centre for Citizenship, Globalization and Governance and Director of Public Policy@Southampton.

Follow Gerry’s Director Blogs at http://publicpolicy.southampton.ac.uk/

Tweet to Gerry @ProfStoker

Find the Centre for Citizenship, Globalization and Governance on Twitter@C2G2Soton and PublicPolicy@Southampton @publicpolicyUoS

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