Introduction: evidence-based policy: a concept in geographical and substantive expansion.

Author:Frey, Kathrin

1 EBP--The Rise of a Research Topic

Over the past decade, the notion of 'evidence-based policy' (EBP) has become increasingly popular in many policy areas (Davies et al. 2000) and has spread internationally (Head 2010; Nutley et al. 2010). Politicians and civil servants seem to be attaching more weight to utilizing research evidence for policy purposes than ever before. The term EBP has originally been coined by the Labour Government in power in the United Kingdom (UK) between 1997 and 2010. Tony Blair's Government emphasized the relevance of rigorous scientific analysis to improve policy-making. Political decisions, it was argued, ought to be 'based on a comprehensive and foresighted understanding of evidence' (Cabinet Office 1999). The slogan 'what matters is what works' was intended to signal the end of policy-making based on political ideology or prejudice in favor of policy-making based on sound evidence (Nutley et al. 2007).

EBP can be seen as the most recent efforts undertaken by governments over the past half century to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of public policy-making through the use of systematic evaluative rationality (Howlett 2009). It sustains the shift from input and process steering (defining resource allocations for specific processes or setting administrative guidelines to be followed) to output-oriented concepts of public steering that apply criteria based on 'results' (defining the desired policy effects). Although the appeal to EBP has received wide attention, its conceptual foundations are yet rather ambiguous (cf. also section 2 on central research issues).

Not surprisingly, the efforts to strengthen EBP in the UK and elsewhere have been paralleled by a new wave of research interest in the relationship between evidence and politics. Publications dealing with questions about the generation, diffusion, and utilization of evidence (or expertise, scientific knowledge, etc.) for policy purposes have increased considerably (e.g. Boswell 2009; Frey 2010a; James and Jorgensen 2009; Ledermann 2008; Pawson 2006; Sager 2007; Schrefler 2010, Tenbensel 2004). Workshops at international conferences in public administration and political science on this topic have been flourishing. This issue of German Policy Studies is the result of such a gathering, held at the 2008 ECPR Joint Sessions of Workshops in Rennes under the title 'The Politics of Evidence-based Policy-making'. We were among the sixteen participants, and together with the organizers Fritz Sager and Ray Pawson, we shared four intensive days with fruitful discussion, presenting our work to each other.

We are pleased that we have been able to enlist five of the contributions for the present issue, which together represent a good assortment. The authors of this issue cover research topics that are relevant to EBP, ranging from the question of principle about the nature of evidence to down-to-earth issues that arise when trying to apply evidence to policy or practice. All articles have a qualitative empirical research part, which constitutes in some cases the core of the analysis, while it serves merely as an illustration in others. We tried to select empirical examples that span from the UK as the cradle of EBP to continental Europe where the concept has travelled to (Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, and Switzerland). This way, we would like to facilitate a comparative perspective on how the concept of EBP has developed.

2 Central Research Issues

The concept of EBP is based on a twofold optimism: On the one hand it presumes that the quality of policies, their effectiveness and efficiency can be measured in an objective and conclusive way. On the other hand it assumes that policy-making can be rationalized. This optimism has been the starting point of many critics of EBP and gave reason to the allegation of naivety (Sanderson 2002; Parsons 2002, 2004; Widmer 2009; see also Monaghan in this issue). Two fundamental questions lie behind this twofold optimism:

* What is evidence and how is it generated?

* When, how and by whom is evidence brought into policy?

We would like to elaborate on these questions in order to point out relevant research issues on EBP and locate the contributions in this issue within current discussions. The two questions are not as separate as they might appear at first sight; the definition of evidence and its production are implicitly or explicitly linked to an intention of use.

What is evidence and how is it generated?

While efforts to improve public policy by using evidence have not been challenged fundamentally, there is growing disagreement and confusion about what constitutes sound, and thus credible, evidence for decision-making (Donaldson et al. 2009). As Hanne Foss Hansen and Olaf Rieper put it in their article, 'evidence' is an 'elastic concept'. In French, the term 'evidence' refers to self-evident, apparent facts and experience, whereas in English, it means proof and implies causality. In its original version, EBP referred to 'evidence' as proof and put the question of 'what works' at the center. This narrow definition has, however, been an important point of criticism, as Mark Monaghan discusses in his contribution. One of the main advocates of a broader concept, which he entitles 'intelligent government', is Ian Sanderson. In his article, he demands that not only scientific evidence, but also practitioners' experience and the 'common sense' of the people concerned by a social problem be used in policymaking. That these two additional types of 'evidence' or 'knowledge' are important, is demonstrated by Heleen Vreugdenhil and Philippe Ker Rault in their study about pilot projects. Diffusion of pilot projects depends on a successful transfer of the different types of knowledge created in a pilot, including social learning.

There is a strong movement within EBP to exploit existing data or research more fully, namely in the form of systematic reviews. These reviews are proposed as a solution to the timing problem: scientific research often takes too long to deliver its results, so that policy decisions have been taken by that time. As an alternative, systematic reviews summarize already available results in order to inform policy. We can witness a rapidly growing amount of literature on how to do so-called systematic reviews of existing findings (Foss Hansen and Rieper 2009; Pawson 2006; Sager 2007). In the 1990s, the Cochrane Collaboration has pioneered this...

To continue reading