Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Is evidence-based policy a load of crap?

In a book I'm reading for the LSE Politics and Policy Blog - Personalising Public Services - the author Catherine Needham argues that despite the rhetoric about 'evidence-based policy-making', governments in reality construct and implement policies by 'telling stories' to the electorate:

"Formal evaluative data remains important, as might be expected in an era in which ministers demand 'evidence-based policy'.  However, when compelling findings have proved somewhat elusive - appeals to common sense and/or resonant stories are deployed to fill the gap" (p. 55).

I thought about this (for about 5 minutes) and come to the conclusion (perhaps cynically) that most of the time this is what politicians are doing.  They evade and manipulate questions of evidence: they celebrate research that supports their aims and rubbish research that doesn't.  Thus even when evidence is used in the policy-making process it doesn't form central stage: it becomes part of a wider, theatrical production in which a certain political strategy is put on show.

No where is this clearer than with welfare reform, which is not about evidence at all.  Welfare reform is a grand narrative starring the workshy scrounger and the hardworking taxpayer.  It is played out as soap opera, in which the scrounger has the upper hand but where the taxpayer is fighting back.  As with all soap opera the realities of people's lives and experiences are ignored in favour of a simplistic, dramatic and ultimately false dramatisation of the real-life protagonists.

It'd be nice to think that our politicians were old enough and mature enough to do policy differently than 'telling a story'.  But they're not.  Instead we have a political elite obsessed with crafting lies and creating villains.  They don't seem to realise that this fiction is a reality for those they cast in the leading roles.

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