Saturday, 16 January 2010

What Is Policy? And What Is Evidence-Based Policy-Making?

It is sometimes amusing to ask some earnest "policy advisor" or "public policy" lobbyist what they actually mean by the word policy.

(It is often the same blank or hapless response one gets with many management consultants when faced with a challenge to differentiate between "aims" and "objectives".)

A little unfair, perhaps, with such easy targets; but from time to time it is useful to ask what certain common terms mean.

And what we mean by the word policy is curiously difficult to define.

Does it matter?

Well, given the emphasis which is (in my view, correctly) placed on "evidence-based policy-making" in areas such as drugs policy, regulation of prostitution, public health, climate change, etc, it is important to be clear not only what the evidence is, but what it means for a policy to be "based" on the evidence.

There are a couple of things which do not (for me) constitute a policy.

First, evidence by itself does not equal policy.

This must be true in respect of the term "evidence-based policy-making", as evidence is explicitly stated only to be the basis of policy and not the policy itself.

Second, law does not equal policy.

Passing legislation, including banning some things and creating enforceable entitlements to others, may be part of a policy; but it is not the policy itself.

For example, using a legal prohibition and coercive sanctions to bring fox-hunting to a stop may well be the application of a policy to end fox-hunting; but the law is being used as means to a policy end.

Similarly, the reduction of crime and the prevention of anti-social behaviour can require criminal justice legislation; but it is misconceived to think that passing legislation in itself constitutes a policy.

Law is in fact only one of many means for implementing policy: others include decision-making, rule-making, guidance, circulars, advertising, campaigning, persuasion, allocating resources, prioritisation, showing leadership, and so on.

Both evidence and (sometimes) law are related to policy; the former should provide a basis, the latter providing one way amongst others of implementing a policy.

But what is policy?

Policy was defined by Samuel Johnson as "the art of government" (though in the eighteenth century, this meant usually in foreign affairs) and "Art; prudence; management of affairs; stratagem".

The relevant definitions in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary are:

"Government; the conduct of public affairs; political science"
"Political sagacity or diplomacy; prudence or skill in the conduct of public affairs"
"A course of action or principle adopted or proposed by a government, party, individual, etc; any course of action adopted as advantageous or expedient"

(I notice in passing, rather bizarrely, that the Shorter Oxford Dictionary quotes Carl Sagan - of all writers - to illustrate an alternative and mundane meaning of policy as an insurance policy.)

If policy means a course of action, evidence should provide its basis. As one very skilled policy-maker and politician - RA Butler, who introduced the 1944 Education Act - may have put it: policy is the art of the possible.

A disregard for the appropriate evidence-base will tend to lead to policy failure.

And in areas of social and economic concern, public health, or in respect of climate change, the prejudices and assumptions of politicians or indeed voters do not constitute an evidence base.

However, the prejudices and asumptions of politicians and voters can be relevant, at least in a democratic and liberal society, to the shaping of policy.

If a policy is unacceptable to an electorate, then the policy may simply not be sustainable, whatever its other merits.

In my view, the correct function of the policy-maker is to take the appropriate evidence and to fashion courses of action which are realistically capable of implementation.

It may be that such courses of action do not need legislation.

For example, in respect of criminal conduct and anti-social behaviour, more criminal justice legislation is probably less important than changes in policing and developing non-coercive forms of constructive engagement with offending individuals. Indeed, a successful policy may some times require the repeal or abolition of certain laws, for example (in my view) with drugs policy.

Neither those who concentrate only on the evidence base nor those who want to pass ever more legislation are primarily concerned with policy.

Policy is the link between the evidence and the range of means ultimately adopted; but it is distinct from both.

Policy-making is a difficult job, at least if done properly. There are conflicting priorities, and the limitations of legal and non-legal approaches can be stark; most of all, policy-making requires a realistic sense of what is achievable.

It is in the nature of human affairs that regulating human conduct for some desirable purpose will generally tend to fail; only skilled and realistic policy-making avoids this outcome.

And so good policy-making is, for me as a skeptic, based as far as possible on sound evidence and, for me as a liberal, resorts as little as possible to legal coercion.

But evidence and law do not a policy make.

However, the nature of politics - of seeking and securing power - does not necessarily mean that a good politician is a good policy-maker.

Politicians too often promote bad policies just because of political expediency.

It is therefore important that anyone who wants to achieve certain desirable ends engage with the political and policy-making processes, so to make it harder for politicans to make bad policy by using bad evidence and passing bad laws.

Policy-making should not be left to politicians.

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Alchemipedia said...

Thanks for the interesting and thought provoking post.

My issue with policy making is that it is heavily influenced by factors other than evidence. It is often these influences that then lead to bad policy. It is also these influences that may prevent a bad policy being derived from apparently good evidence.

Influences (as you suggest) include:
* Orthodoxy - particularly as it pertains to religion.
* Autocracy-Democracy continuum.
Economic market forces.
* Nationalism - with emphasis on collective identity.
* Local, regional & world( geo)politics.
* Local-National-International laws.

A heavy focus on evidence is also problematic:
* Experts can, often legitimately, disagree about the evidence used.
* Lack of evidence does not necessarily equate with lack of harm or benefit.
* Apparently good evidence may also be flawed or wrong (often only realised later).
* Accumulation of evidence may be haphazard or biased toward one or more of the influences suggested above.

It would also be useful if policies had the following:
* Clear lines of accountability.
* Transparent documentation on how the policy was derived.
* Mechanisms in place for policy revision.
* Mechanisms in place, where good evidence is lacking, to help fill the evidence gap(s).

ObiterJ said...

An interesting post. Quote - 'good policy-making is, for me as a skeptic, based as far as possible on sound evidence and, for me as a liberal, resorts as little as possible to legal coercion.'

I think that I can basically go along with that but there is the problem of knowing what is "sound" evidence and whether the conclusions drawn from evidence are also sound. Consider global warming. Are the conclusions drawn from the evidence "for" global warming sound? I am not expert enough to say but it illustrates my point.

Of course, politicians do not necessarily always act on sound evidence. They will sometimes act on limited evidence and come up with some legal solution which is then difficult to change. The Dangerous Dogs Act may be an example of this. Yes, some dogs attack humans but the idea of banning particular breeds was flawed. Surely, the law ought to concentrate on irresponsible keepers.

Politicians will nearly always adopt a solution which involves passing legislation. For one thing, it gets them seen in Parliament and the public eye. Also, many of them are lawyers and to legislate is their instinctive reaction. They also want to enforce their policy so they legislate for coercive measures.

Matt Wardman said...

>Policy-making should not be left to politicians.

... and the political debate should be as broad as possible, which in blog terms means that even tiddley-winks bloggers can properly be doing political comment - not because they should be politico-nerds, but because politics belongs to everyone.

Richard Gadsden said...

>Policy-making should not be left to politicians.

I prefer to express that as "all citizens are politicians" - there isn't some separate group of people who are politicians; anyone with an opinion on any policy issue is, by the fact of having a view, a politician.

In the EU, they tend to make a distinction between "policy making" and "policy implementation". One of the improvements that the EU has been trying to make in the last 20 or so years is to put more focus on policy implementation (ie making sure that what you want is actually done) and less on policy making (ie deciding what to do). To some extent, that's a power grab, in that implementation is a member state activity where policy making is an EU activity; on the other hand, this is where the anti-corruption initiatives sit.

andyrussell said...

Does "stratagem" (A deceptive tactic designed to gain the upper hand) mean the same now as it would have to Samuel Johnson? If so, I'm a little worried about policy now!

crabsallover said...

What is sound/appropriate/bad evidence?

In policy making, should more weight be given to 'reliable' evidence which has been derived from the process known as 'the scientific method'?