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The Politics of Evidence: From Evidence Based Policy to the Good Governance of Evidence

The Politics of Evidence: From Evidence Based Policy to the Good Governance of Evidence

By  Justin Parkhurst

Many of those active in knowledge translation (KT) work are motivated by a desire to see policy-relevant evidence achieve its greatest potential to improve decisions and affect social policies for the benefit of populations. Advocates of greater evidence thus work from a clear set of values about the potential usefulness of evidence, but also at times raise concerns about the misuse and manipulation of evidence to serve other interests within policymaking arenas.

Policy scholars, however, have questioned approaches to evidence use for policymaking which fail to directly engage with the nature of politics itself. Policymaking is fundamentally political in that it requires decisions about which social goals to pursue, or how to prioritise between our multiple (often competing) social values. This reflects insights from political theorists that date back half a century or more (c.f. Albert Brect) who have explained that policymaking is about deciding what a good society looks like – a question science itself cannot answer. As such, simply working to build skills in evidence use, or to provide robust and scientifically valid evidence to decision makers may struggle to produce long term effects if the political system is working in ways that are not conducive to purely technical thinking.

Many KT strategies do not yet engage with the realities of the process they hope to inform. Traditoinally, KT efforts have emphasised technical skill development – addressing capacity needs to utilise evidence to its greatest potential, yet failing to directly engage with the larger political nature of the policymaking process which might shape when evidence is used, or why pieces of evidence might be ignored, manipulated, or otherwise strategically used within policy making in the first place. As such, we see calls to scale up or institutionalise the use of evidence which never stop to consider some fundamentally important political questions – such as what evidence should be promoted, by whom, and for which of the many social concerns typically at stake in policymaking.

The answers to these questions – about which evidence, about what concerns, by whom – have implications for whose interests are promoted or legitimised within the policy sphere. This tension underlies some of the most important contemporary debates about evidence use today – often seen to be waged in terms of a ‘paradigm war’ between advocates of better evidence on the one hand – who argue that we need to ensure rigour and scientific good practice; and critical policy scholars – who argue that important value debates risk being depoliticised or obscured by particular uses of evidence.

In a new book I attempt to move these debates forward. I argue that we need to recognise that in policy arenas, the systems and processes that shape how evidence is used can be understood as governing the use of evidence for policymaking. Institutionalising or scaling up new ways of using evidence, are thus not simply technical exercises in skills building, but are fundamentally a normative (value driven) process. It sets in place the structures, rules, and practices that will direct how different forms of evidence, for different social concerns, are used to guide policy decisions.

If institutions govern evidence use, and if the decisions on how to arrange them are political ones, this begs the question: which values or norms should be followed when working to improve the use of evidence? What, in other words, can we hold up as key principles of the good governance of evidence? My book looks to the stakeholders in the aforementioned debate to find answers to this. Champions of evidence typically uphold a key set of normative concerns that are fundamentally about achieving scientific best practice. Critical policy scholars, on the other hand, present a separate, but just as important, set of concerns over democratic representation in policymaking. These need not be mutually exclusive, however. Both perspectives can be used to form a set of principles that underpins a conceptualisation of good governance of evidence. Evidence can be said to be well governed when we have systems in place that ensure that rigorous, systematic and technically valid pieces of evidence are used in decision-making processes that are representative of, and accountable to, the populations served.

This concept allows us to return to our goal of building institutions to improve evidence use for policymaking, but to do so in ways that are appropriate to the political nature of the policy process.

* This entry is based on ideas presented in the book: The Politics of Evidence: From Evidence Based Policy to the Good Governance of Evidence, by Justin Parkhurst, 2017, London, Routledge.

The book is available for free as a pdf under a creative commons open access licence (CC-BY-NC-ND) and can be downloaded here.

Hardback copies are also available for purchase here.

A set of briefs have also been produced summarising many of the key points of the book, available here (listed under ‘chapter summaries’).

Description: Justin Parkhurst photo smallJustin Parkhurst is an Associate Professor of Global Health Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science (the LSE). His current work looks at the politics and governance of evidence, with past work on health systems development and HIV/AIDS prevention, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa (see for publications, many of which are open access and free to download).

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