Institute for Policy Research

Evidence and the Politics of Policymaking: where next?

Wed Sep 21 08:36:00 BST 2016

On Wednesday 14 and Thursday 15 September, delegates and speakers from all over the world gathered at the University of Bath for a joint Institute for Policy Research (IPR) and Centre for Development Studies (CDS) symposium. Evidence and the Politics of Policymaking: where next? Brought together academics, policymakers and NGO leaders to discuss the crucial role of evidence in policymaking, and to examine critically the process by which data is formalised as evidence that can support effective governance.

The symposium opened with an interview between IPR Director Professor Nick Pearce and the Rt Hon Douglas Alexander, an experienced Labour politician who has served in a range of cabinet roles – including, perhaps most notably, International Development Secretary. In response to Professor Pearce’s opening question on why he came to politics in the first place, Alexander replied that it was to serve his community, and to serve a cause. “Politics can be a force for change, and I’m even more convinced of this today than I was when I first joined the Labour party”, the former MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South said.

Alexander went on to discuss the course of his career as it progressed through government and the civil service – an organisation that he characterised as “extraordinarily hierarchical”, but which nonetheless would give excellent results and reciprocate if treated with respect. His reflections mingled general observations on life as a minister with personal anecdotes about working alongside Gordon Brown and Tony Blair; he related how he had been struck by the intellectual, political and even physical energy Brown devoted to multilateral systems – “he was a Chancellor who engaged with finance ministers as fellow politicians, and always pushed the conversation forward”, he said. He closed his talk with the assertion that “a minister’s effectiveness is defined by the evidence and policy they bring to the table”, a statement that impressed upon delegates the importance of these quantities as they broke into parallel panel sessions.

Panel session one, which focused on interdisciplinarity, was chaired by Professor Pearce and featured presentations from University of Bath academics Professor Graham Room and Dr David Moon, as well as Queen Mary University of London scholar Dr Helen McCarthy – a historian who is advocating closer dialogue between her field and that of policy. Professor Room’s presentation examined the different types of evidence – from laboratory-based scientific evidence to medical randomised controlled trials to legal evidence – and when they are best deployed. Dr McCarthy explored the different ways in which history can be used in policymaking, including as a “policy memory” function. Finally, Dr Moon spoke about the role of political theory, and his own use of post-structuralist discourse theory to uncover sedimented power in the use of evidence in politics and policymaking.

The extreme poverty panel, chaired by the University of Bath’s own Dr Rana Jawad, brought together some diverse presentations; in terms of case studies, the talks ranged from Bangladesh to Latin America to East Africa, and their subject matter ran the gamut from different forms of knowledge used in social science – in Dr Joe Devine’s segment – to how evidence can represent the efficacy of conditional cash transfer programmes – Dr Theo Papadopoulos’ contribution. Charles Lwanga-Ntale, who joined the panel from the Humanitarian Leadership Academy’s centre in Kenya, reflected on the vicissitudes of his career, including working with Idi Amin: “Idi Amin said to us that knowledge was not important, only power,” he recalled. “That made me frown”. The outcome of the panel’s fruitful discussion, in fact, could well be summed up in Charles’ words: “evidence is more than just a way to the next piece of research. It is holistic, and reaches beyond academia to practice”.

The parallel panels continued after lunch with a session on data infrastructures chaired by the recently-announced IPR Prize Fellow Dr Jonathan Gray. This panel introduced a wealth of new ideas to the conversation. Presentations from Liliana Bounegru of the University of Ghent and Kings’ College London’s Dr Tommaso Venturini on the tools and methods used by programmers and data journalists got delegates thinking about innovative ways to use data – and Dr Sabine Niederer’s presentation on her project with the Citizen Data Lab in Amsterdam opened up these methods with a practical and policy-relevant application, drawing many questions during the discursive portion of the panel.

The social movements panel, which went on at the same time, opened with Dr Patta Scott-Villiers discussing the Unga Revolution in Kenya, before handing over to Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya – who discussed the environment of early-2000s Bangladesh which led to the establishment of the Centre for Policy Dialogue. These case studies provided a useful background to Dr Ana Dinerstein’s talk, which brought Open Marxist social theory to the interpretation of such popular movements.

The first day of the conference ended with a keynote from the University of Durham’s Professor Nancy Cartwright, who was introduced by CDS Director Dr Susan Johnson. This lively and engaging lecture brought a rigorous philosophical approach to determining what counts as evidence, and the kind of causal claims that we can actually make. Through the course of her presentation, Professor Cartwright drew her auditors progressively deeper into a warren of qualifications that are incumbent on any claim of a causal relationship. “What we see as causal factors are actually wedges of a causal pie”, the Professor said; “policies contribute to outcomes, but don’t govern them – they operate in context”. The lecture drew together many of the themes that had been touched on in the day’s panel sessions, and closed with an acknowledgement of the intricacy of the problems faced: “building an evidence base for policy is a tall order – but the challenges policy deals with are complex, and evidence bases should be too.”

The final keynote, delivered by Lord Kerslake, Chair of King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and former Head of the Civil Service, opened the second day of the conference and focused largely on electoral reform and devolution. In the wake of Brexit, he said, it is important for the UK to contend with the constitutional crisis it faces; firstly, to close the gap between government and governed through devolution. “The UK is one of, if not the most, centralised country in the OECD”, he said; devolution would be a way to move power away from Whitehall, but simultaneously free it to tackle strategic issues like Brexit. “Devolution would lead to different choices, and different results, for different regions”, the life peer warned – “but centralisation has too.”

The second challenge concerned electoral reform. “In 1955”, Lord Kerslake reported, “the conservatives won power with 314 seats and 38% of the vote. In 2015, they won with 331 seats but only 24% of the vote […] First-past-the-post fails in every respect to reflect the new reality of a country that is moving away from a 2-party to a multi-party system.” With a large part of the electorate being effectively excluded by the way we vote, and those living in the regions unable to make headway through centralised power, Kerslake concluded that we will ignore the constitutional crisis at our peril; “we can’t go on as we are.” This timely and impactful message, like Alexander’s reflections the day before, revealed the high stakes behind conversations around policymaking and evidence.

In the migration session, Professor Pearce introduced an expert panel including Marley Morris, Tim Finch and Dr Emma Carmel. Morris, a Research Fellow at the IPPR, pointed out the flaws in migration data, and in evidence chosen to represent the issue – as well as how passionately and convincingly this supposed ‘evidence’ is wielded. This led him onto the topic of public scepticism of migration data and data in general, a theme picked up by Tim Finch, who also discussed the overstatement of evidence that takes place on both sides of this debate and how this gets in the way of constructive public dialogue on migration issues. Dr Carmel, finally, made the case that knowledge used in policymaking is partial, contingent, intuited and practiced – calling for greater acknowledgement of personal experiences as evidence.

The Wellbeing panel focussed on a range of questions within wellbeing; what does wellbeing mean, and what makes people happy? Is wellbeing a medical or an ethical issue? And how can policy influence wellbeing? Professor Sakiko Fukuda-Parr commenced the panel with a presentation on global goals as wellbeing policy, and the impact of the sustainable and millennium development goals. Her talk raised the question of whether quantitative or qualitative data should be used to measure wellbeing, a question which Dr Will Davies developed on – asking the audience whether wellbeing belonged more properly to medicine or ethics. Professor Sarah White then expounded these themes in a broader context, painting a picture of wellbeing under threat in modern society and advocating new approaches and new evidence to refresh thought on this issue.

Closing the two-day event, the roundtable brought together the wealth of ideas that had been shared in the symposium’s various sessions, and reviewed them in a discursive context. In particular, it saw presentations from NGO leaders Judith Randel and Carey Oppenheim, Founder of Development Initiatives and CEO of the Early Intervention Foundation respectively, who discussed the research that their organisations perform and how it informs policy. Professor Allister McGregor and Dr Bhattacharya also reprised a few of their ideas from the panels, and the discussion was chaired by Professor Pearce. A fitting end to a highly productive, varied and illuminating symposium, the session closed with an extended discussion of questions from the floor.

You can review the programme for Evidence and the Politics of Policymaking: where next?, which includes speaker bios, here.

All of the sessions were captured on video, and can be viewed here.

The original powerpoints for the following presentations can be seen online:

Panel session one: Interdisciplinarity and evidence

Panel session two: Extreme poverty and social protection: evidence and the policymaking process

Panel session three: Changing what counts? Data, evidence and the reshaping of public information systems

Panel session four: Social movements and policy change

Keynote one: Predicting Policy Outcomes: What Can the Evidence Do for You? Professor Nancy Cartwright

Panel session five: Migration

Panel session six: Wellbeing and the politics of policy