It is difficult to provide an overview of the current condition of evidence-based policy-making in any nation state, but the United Kingdom presents some distinct challenges. First and foremost, as a result of devolution there are four seats of power to consider; the United Kingdom government in Westminster; the Scottish government in Edinburgh and the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies in Cardiff and Belfast, respectively. To greater or lesser degrees, there has been critical commentary on the nature of evidence-based policy-making in each jurisdiction (1). The situation is then made more complicated by the diversity of the policy areas in which evidence-based policy is applied, for instance education, health, criminal justice, housing, transport and so on. As this is the case, the current contribution does not attempt a broad overview of the 'state-of-play' of evidence-based policy in the UK. Instead, it concentrates on a narrower, but no less important, set of issues. These are emerging trends that appear to be unique to evidence-based policy-making and commentary thereon in the UK. These relate to: (a) the broadening scope of the evidence movement and; (b) new attempts to model the evidence and policy connection. They provide the context for the following discussion.
Although there are still large discrepancies over access to knowledge, the Western hemisphere can be characterized as being information rich (Anderson 2003). Consequently, that policy should be based on some kind of evidence, research or expertise has for a long-time seen to be common-sense in most parts of the 'West'. In recent times, particularly in the UK, this has not been without drama and much debate has arisen about the relationship between evidence and politics (Monaghan 2011). Head (2010: 80-1) comments that the influence of politics has been seen as one stumbling block to the realization of the ideals of evidence-based policy-making, particularly in what he refers to as 'turbulent' policy domains, but what are referred to here as adversarial or politicized areas (Monaghan 2010). Elsewhere (Monaghan 2008), it has been suggested that adversarial policies are not usually the remit of evidence-based policy-making, as in such circumstances policy seems to be more 'muddled through' (Lindblom 1959). This contrasts, with the rational model of policy-making implied by the ideal-type of evidence-based policy, epitomized by Plewis' (2000: 96) assertion that evidence-based policy must be taken to mean that 'policy initiatives are to be supported by research evidence and that policies introduced on a trial basis are to be evaluated in a rigorous way as possible'.
According to some commentators (see for example Mulgan 2005) when it is not expedient, the government is not fully committed to its pledge of developing policies on the back of sound evidence instead of dogma. This is an 'established criticism' of the evidence-based policy agenda. In simple terms, the idea is that politics and not evidence is the main driver of policy and in policy areas where there is intense media scrutiny, this is especially so. This article seeks to examine this issue in closer detail. In doing so, it questions the somewhat accepted wisdom that that politics and evidence are juxtaposed as drivers of policy. It suggests that a solid case can be made that evidence is embedded in the decision-making process even in heavily politicized or adversarial policy areas and it should be the task of analysts to uncover the role it plays. Fortunately, some help is at hand here. Over the past three decades and more, attempts to model the research and policy connection have been developed (see for example Weiss 1977; 1986) to help illustrate the role of evidence in policy. It will be argued that the established models, although useful, cannot fully explain the evidence and policy connection as it applies in adversarial domains, but newer additions to the literature do have more potential.
Consequently, the remainder of the article is organized as follows. The following section provides an outline of some of the key issues that have arisen since evidence-based policy-making gained currency in policy circles. This documents some of the challenges to the endeavor and attempts to overcome these. It is suggested that some of the proposed solutions do not translate to adversarial areas, because of the unique challenges to which the latter give rise. The following section focuses on adversarial domains and presents some of the challenges for the evidence movement in this context. This is followed by a case study; that of UK drug classification policy that teases out some of these issues. On the back of this the penultimate section looks at the models of evidence utilization including some of the recent literature as an attempt to explain the relationship. Finally some concluding remarks are offered.
2 The Origins, Development and Criticisms of Evidence-Based Policy
Although there is a long history and geographical spread of knowledge speaking to power (Parsons 1995; Anderson 2003), evidence-based policy-making in these terms was, at the outset, primarily an Anglo-Saxon development (Solesbury, 2001; Boaz, et al. 2008), intrinsically tied to the incoming New Labour government elected in 1997. A key pledge of New Labour was to 'modernize' policy-making by promising more accountability in the decision-making process (Bullock et al. 2001; Cabinet Office 1999a; Cabinet Office 1999b). Key personnel including, analysts, policy-makers, researchers were charged with the task of finding out 'what works' in mainly public service policy domains. The modernizing agenda has been described as a 'pragmatic approach' to policy-making; being output driven as opposed to dogmatic. It was central to New Labour's 'Third Way' philosophy and their commitment to providing more efficient public service delivery under the auspices of new public management (Hudson and Lowe 2004: 223). The quest for finding out 'what works' is very much the orthodoxy in evidence-based policy-making. In recent times, the principles of evidence-based policy-making have branched out into other areas, but this has not been a smooth transition as the cases of Nutt and Wynne demonstrate.
Taylor (2005: 601) speaks of an 'evidential turn' in the language of public policy that accompanied the election of New Labour, making a connection between this and the ascendancy of neo-liberalism, public choice theory and new managerialism in the 1980s and 1990s. Taylor (2005: 602) further states that accompanying these developments was a concerted effort to promote objective, scientific evidence in decision-making at the expense of political values. In effect, the goal was the development of 'value-free' policies, through a rigorous evaluation infrastructure. One of the earliest statements on the origins of evidence-based policy was made in the Cabinet Office White Paper outlining the modernizing agenda:
This government expects more of policy-makers ... better use of evidence and research in policy-making and better focus on policies that will deliver long term goals (Cabinet Office 1999: 6). By placing research and analysis at the centre of decision-making, it was a desire of New Labour to move away from the era of 'conviction politics' associated with the governments of Margaret Thatcher and (to a lesser extent) John Major, although adherence to the principles of new public management suggest lines of continuity. Despite early promise, the evidence-based policy movement has become somewhat pensive. Commentators describe how the 'first flush of enthusiasm has given way to disillusionment' (Stevens 2007: 25) or that now EBPP 'has come to be less lauded and more pragmatically engaged with in the UK' (Pearson 2010: 77).
Campbell (2002: 89), suggests that evidence-based policy-making has, in fact, been used by the government as a way of neglecting the skepticism that exists within the public towards the scientific community. It has long been recognized that, particularly in the social sciences, inconsistent and often contradictory findings from the research process are commonplace. As a consequence, for certain thinkers, this critique of the nature of science has gone unnoticed by the government in their quest for finding out 'what works and why'. Rosenthal and Di Matteo (2001: 60), meanwhile, have pointed out that in recent times the expansion of scientific research in nearly every area has created a situation when 'new findings daily "overthrow" old ones'. These findings often mystify central issues in both theory and practice.
Sanderson (2002: 6) meanwhile suggests that lessons learned from the constructivist and interpretivist traditions, which demonstrate that the social world may be 'socially constructed and culturally and historically contingent' are sidestepped by the rational approach to decision-making outlined by the 'what works' agenda. A further key criticism of the evidence movement has been the claim that poor scholarship has resulted from the system in which evaluators or evidence-suppliers are working. Phrases like 'quick and dirty' reviews become disparaging references for work frequently commissioned by government departments or agencies that rely on speedy access to information. As Weiss, et al, (2008: 31-2) illustrate, 'evaluators often work under limited time constraints with insufficient funds for good comparative design and longitudinal follow up.' To lay these charges solely at the door of 'government' and the demands they place on the research community is somewhat misleading. It downplays the fact that most government departments, particularly in the UK (including the devolved administrations) have a bespoke research section staffed by individuals and teams with significant experience in designing, conducting, analyzing and disseminating social research.
Arguably, a more pressing problem relates to...