Tuesday, 29 November 2011

* The case against evidence-based policy-making

Ben Pile 
The big lie about evidence-based policy-making is that it’s based on evidence. Evidence no more produces and speaks for itself than cars decide their destinations. Policy-making begins when people perceive a need for a policy. Even when it is evidence which moves a person to speak for a policy, such evidence is always seen through the prejudices, preconceptions and presuppositions that every human sees the world through. The desire for objectivity in politics, while seemingly sensible, belies a terrible loss of self-confidence, and can typically hide what should be political decisions under the guise of ’science’.

There was never a time when policies were made deliberately, in spite of evidence. So it is therefore hard to understand what gave rise to the policy of policy-based evidence-making. Was there evidence of a need? The expression itself seems to borrow from ‘evidence-based medicine’, which nobody could fail to see the sense in. But in what sense is policy-making like medicine? Evidence-based policy making casts policy and evidence makers as clinicians and society as its patient.

The problem with this analogy with the doctor-patient relationship is that, when it comes to politics, it really ought to be us ‘patients’ who determine what is wrong with ‘us’. Policy-makers – previously known as ‘politicians’ — always had their ideas and arguments about symptoms and remedies to society’s maladies, but it was the electorate who made the final diagnosis after public debate and democratic contests. Now policy-makers make appeals directly to the evidence-makers for authority.

Not only is there a danger that those who once spoke truth to power are now appointed to speak official truth for official power — think ’sexed up documents’ and ‘dodgy dossiers’ — this new arrangement is itself every bit as ‘ideological’ as the forms of politics that preceded it. Yet the ‘ideology’ — the prejudices, presuppositions and preconceptions — of this arrangement is put beyond interrogation.

To take issue with the claims made by ‘evidence-based policy-makers’ is seen to be taking issue with cold, hard, scientifically-produced facts. In a word: Denial. ‘Deny’ that the evidence for climate change legitimises climate change policies, for instance, and you’ll find yourself accused of being ‘ideologically-motivated’, irrationally driven by a commitment to unshakable beliefs.

But perhaps climate change is too emotive an issue. Arguments made in favour of many policies intended to improve public health are also seemingly premised on science. For example, the abolition of smoking in public places (and soon cars); further restrictions and taxes on tobacco, alcohol, and junk food; the advertising of certain products; and so on. Weak theoretical risk is no obstacle to policy-making, as long as the ‘evidence’ seems to show that lives may be saved. But even where there is strong evidence that a policy will yield a positive result, scientific evidence means nothing at all until we – or rather policy -makers – make the assumption that people aren’t able to negotiate risks for or between themselves, and need policy to protect them from the complex and dangerous world we inhabit.

That’s an intensely political or ‘ideological’ presupposition. It presumes competence to take decisions on behalf of others, on the basis that they aren’t competent. Politics – policy-making – now becomes a matter of simply managing risks in society and evidence-makers are recruited into the process of identifying and measuring risks. And just as people are, in this view, incapable of managing the risks they are exposed to, so they are incapable of making political decisions.

This presupposition of widespread incompetence is insidious. There’s no room for contested values in this way of looking at the world, and so little need of public debate. And therein lies the problem.  There really should be a public debate about the values which inform the interpretation of evidence, or in other words, the extent to which it should be presupposed that adults can manage their own lives. The idea that people are capable of making political decisions, and choices about the risks they take may be ‘ideological’ and fraught with problems. But no less than the idea that they can’t. Debate about the values that inform policies permits seeing the same evidence under different lights. An ideological preoccupation with risk colours the perception of evidence.

The idea that ‘evidence’ can be commissioned, gathered, interpreted and delivered in an objective, ‘value-free’ space is at best dangerously naive. Examining the background to the ascendency of evidence-based policy-making – its context – reveals fundamental shifts in the way the public and institutions of power relate to each other. There is good evidence, in fact, that politicians have turned to those who deal in objectivity precisely as they have lost moral authority and their connection to ordinary life. The problem for the politician in this post-democratic era is how he is to generate legitimacy for his role, now that the idea of popular engagement with politics has been eschewed. Technocracy and scientism fill the void.

Over-emphasis on evidence in policy-making is corrosive to a public debate about the values which inform the interpretation of evidence. It excludes resource-poor perspectives and non-expert public from the debate, and encourages a dangerous passivity. Rather than being excluded from political decisions leading to their improvement, ‘ideology’, hidden and unchallenged, has been allowed to fester, leading to the sclerosis of public institutions and democracy. Better evidence has been sought while the quality of debate has diminished.

Opportunities have been missed, because, when ‘ideology’ flies in the face of evidence, it creates the possibility of exposing the shortcomings of the ‘ideology’ in question, to interrogate it, and to develop it. That opportunity is lost to a vacuous consensus, the members of which are united only by their nervousness of challenges to their own… ideology.

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