Paul Cairney, Professor of Politics and Public Policy, University of Stirling,
Palgrave Pivot, 2015, The Politics of Evidence Based Policymaking
The Role of Evidence in Theories of the Policy Process
To paint an accurate picture of EBPM, I compare its ideal-type with more realistic accounts.
This approach has a long history in post-war policy studies, in which we begin with the ideal-
type of ‘comprehensive’ or ‘synoptic’ rationality to identify ‘bounded rationality’ in the real
world. The links between older studies of rationality and new debates on EBPM are
remarkably strong. They have also been given a new twist following major advances in
research and information technology, which allow us to gather and exchange information in
vastly superior ways than in the early post-war period.
Yet, these advances have not, and will not, solve the problem of bounded rationality. Nor do
they allow us to identify an ordered process of decision-making, involving a ‘policy cycle’
with a series of stages, beginning with an evidence-based debate about policy problems and
ending with an evidence-based evaluation of their solutions. Instead, a focus on rationality
and stages prompts us to challenge the assumptions we make about policymaking – such as
that it is driven by a small number of policymakers at the ‘centre’ – and identify a far messier
and unpredictable process, in which many actors are involved, and the separation of stages
(such as between policy formulation and implementation) is difficult to maintain.
To explain this argument in more depth, I draw on two literatures. The first focuses on the
direct insights that policy studies provide to our understanding of EBPM. Much of this
literature has been published in the UK and Australia, partly to reflect government trends
towards the production of evidence-gathering centres which are expected to work more
closely with policymakers. This literature is relatively simple to generate, since almost all of
it contains the same basic keywords (such as evidence and policy) and/ or can be found by
snowballing from initial texts. These studies highlight the role of the supply and demand for
evidence, and the competition that scientists face when presenting evidence to policymakers.
They suggest that, to be successful, scientific advocates may need to use persuasion and
‘emotive appeals’, and form effective alliances with other groups, to generate greater and
sustained attention for their evidence.
The second draws insights from the broader policy theory literature, which informs the study
of EBPM without making it the primary focus. Most studies identify the role of bounded
rationality as a way to understand the psychology of policymaking; to argue that
policymakers use imperfect, and often ‘gut’ or emotion-based, short cuts to gather
information and make decisions. This takes place in a complex policy environment,
prompting us to understand the rules, networks, and socioeconomic context underpinning
policy decisions. This literature is more difficult for the non-specialist to generate using
conventional searches, since there may be no direct reference to EBPM, and understand,
because, in many cases, theories have their own language and do not give a proper sense of
how the insights from each study or theory relate to EBPM. Yet, understand it we must, since
this literature represents a large part of the accumulated wisdom of policy studies and a way
to better understand the role of evidence and policy.
In the penultimate section, I use this analysis to help us reconsider the value of a focus on
rationality, stages and cycles. It is tempting to make use of the policy cycle, as a simple way
to understand policymaking, compared to the policy theories that present a less orderly
process in which it is difficult to engage. Yet, this would be a mistake, unless you come to
see the cycle as a series of stages in which evidence-based policies can appear to go off
course. In the conclusion, I identify three initial tenets of evidence based policy making, to
help produce a more realistic description of how evidence is used in policymaking. This
underpins the discussion, in chapter 5, of how evidence should be used.
Comprehensive and bounded rationality
The idea of comprehensive rationality is that it represents an ‘optimal’ policy process, at least
when we make some, rather unrealistic, assumptions about who is involved, what they
represent, and the best way to make policy. The idea of ‘bounded rationality’ is that we
examine what happens when these assumptions or conditions are not met. For example, we
initially assume that:
1. The values of society are reflected in the values of policymakers. There is a direct link
between the policy preferences of the public and those of policymakers. In the real
world, elected policymakers receive a limited amount of support from the public, and
they try to satisfy many contradictory public preferences. Government is about
making choices between competing aims, producing ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, and
seeking to legitimise those choices. It is not about finding an optimal choice, based
on indisputable evidence, which will satisfy everyone.
2. A small number of policymakers control the policy process from its centre. Instead,
power is shared across many government departments, levels of government, and with
a range of quasi-governmental and non-governmental actors (Cairney, 2015a). This
insight has practical implications for scientists seeking to supply evidence to the most
relevant policymaking venues, and normative implications when we consider who
should control the policy process (chapter 5).
The key point is that, even if these assumptions were to hold, there would still be a further
series of conditions that would have to be met to ensure a comprehensively rational process
(Cairney, 2012a: 96):
3. We can separate the values, required by policymakers to identify their aims, from the
facts produced by organizations to assess the best way to achieve them. In practice,
people make empirical claims infused with their values. Consider extreme examples,
in which people argue that the evidence exists to show that men are more intelligent
than women and some races are demonstrably superior to others, more routine
examples in which people use data to argue that a public service is in ‘crisis’, or
instances in which people combine facts and values to justify action: we talk about the
evidence on problems when we think we have a duty to solve them (Cairney, 2015b).
Further, no amount of empirical information can solve debates about the root causes
of complex policy problems such as poverty. Facts and values are often hardest to
separate when we evaluate the success and failure of policy solutions, since the
measures used for evaluation are as political as any other part of the policy process
(Cairney, 2012a: 39; McConnell, 2010; Marsh and McConnell, 2010). The gathering
and presentation of facts is a political exercise.
4. An organisation acts optimally by ranking its aims according to its leader’s
preferences and undertaking a comprehensive search for information. In the real
world, policymakers struggle to make choices between competing aims, and
organisations are unable to gather comprehensive levels of information. In practice,
policymaker attention lurches from one aim to another, they struggle to process
information, and they make decisions in the face of great uncertainty. The injection of
more evidence could help alleviate one of these problems but exacerbate another.
5. Policy is made in a ‘linear’ way: policymakers identify their aims, the bureaucracy
produces a list of all ways to deliver those aims, and the policymaker selects the best
solution. In practice, policymaking is much less ordered and predictable:
policymakers often have unclear aims, policy solutions often exist before problems
arise in the minds of policymakers, and policymakers often simply legitimise policies
made in the past, or select solutions to problems to which they have paid little
attention (Cohen et al, 1972).
This final condition – linear policymaking – represents a key part of the post-war
policymaking literature. It became customary to identify a series of stages through which a
policy might progress, from the initial decision to think about a problem to the point at which
its success is evaluated:
Agenda setting. Identifying problems that require government attention, deciding
which issues deserve the most attention and defining the nature of the problem.
Policy formulation. Setting objectives, identifying the cost and estimating the effect of
solutions, choosing from a list of solutions and selecting policy instruments.
Legitimation. Ensuring that the chosen policy instruments have support. It can involve