Government “must up its game” on evidence-based policymaking

 House of Lords Constitution Committee session told that wealth of academic data is often ignored

By Jim Dunton

14 Nov 2016

Too little use is made of the UK’s academic research base when government comes up with new legislation and policies, members of the House of Lords Constitution Committee have been warned.

An evidence session looking into the way the legislative process is informed by evidence was told that poor quality, stand alone research is too often used to support pre-determined policy objectives.

and in recent evidence session they were told that poor quality, stand alone research is too often used to support pre-determined policy objectives. Jonathan Breckon, director of the Alliance for Useful Evidence, told the hearing that the government’s use of evidence was often counter-productively flawed.

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“The UK is blessed in terms of having a world-class social science base and a phenomenal supply, including the What Works Centres and the Behavioural Insights Team and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology,” he said. “It’s just not used enough, and it can be cherry-picked and distorted.”

Breckon told the session that despite the availability of those “wider bodies of trustworthy evidence” from What Works Centres and other organisations, too much use is made of studies commissioned on the hoof that are often of poorer quality.

“The National Audit Office looked more deeply at some government evaluations and half of the evaluations they looked at were of poor quality,” he said. “What was particularly worrying is that the worse quality it was, the more likely you would have stronger recommendations for different actions – the weaker it was, the more confidently the evaluators would say ‘we’ve got some clear policy recommendations’.”

Breckon added that some new legislation or policy publications also fall short in the extent to which they connected their policy to the evidence it is based on.

He cited the Department for Education’s “Educational Excellence Everywhere” white paper, published in March, as an example.

“The referencing [is such] that you cannot find the evidence base behind that particular policy,” he said.

Breckon said new practice in South Africa requiring white papers to include a section where policy evidence is shown could be of benefit in the UK.

Institute for Government programme director Jill Rutter also gave evidence to the committee's inquiry, which continues this Wednesday.

Rutter said a more natural way to find solutions to problems would be to first agree on the research that underpinned those problems.

“It would be really interesting if the government put out the evidence base first,” she said. “Too often we use evidence to support the solution we’ve already come up with, and we conflate that.”

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