Evidence-based policymaking in the legislatures

Blog by Ville Aula: “Evidence-based policymaking is a popular approach to policy that has received widespread public attention during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as in the fight against climate change. It argues that policy choices based on rigorous, preferably scientific evidence should be given priority over choices based on other types of justification. However, delegating policymaking solely to researchers goes against the idea that policies are determined democratically.

In my recent article published in Policy & Politics: Evidence-based policymaking in the legislatures we explored the tension between politics and evidence in the national legislatures. While evidence-based policymaking has been extensively studied within governments, the legislative arena has received much less attention. The focus of the study was on understanding how legislators, legislative committees, and political parties together shape the use of evidence. We also wanted to explore how the interviewees understand timeliness and relevance of evidence, because lack of time is a key challenge within legislatures. The study is based on 39 interviews with legislators, party employees, and civil servants in Eduskunta, the national Parliament of Finland.

Our findings show that, in Finland, political parties play a key role in collecting, processing, and brokering evidence within legislatures. Finnish political parties maintain detailed policy programmes that guide their work in the legislature. The programmes are often based on extensive consultations with expert networks of the party and evidence collection from key stakeholders. Political parties are not ready to review these programmes every time new evidence is offered to them. This reluctance can give the appearance that parties do not want to follow evidence. Nevertheless, reluctance is oftens necessary for political parties to maintain stable policy platforms while navigating uncertainty amidst competing sources of evidence. Party positions can be based on extensive evidence and expertise even if some other sources of evidence contradict them.

Partisan expert networks and policy experts employed by political parties in particular appear to be crucial in formulating the evidence-base of policy programmes. The findings suggest that these groups should be a new target audience for evidence brokering. Yet political parties, their employees, and their networks have rarely been considered in research on evidence-based policymaking.

Turning to the question of timeliness we found, as expected, that use of evidence in the Parliament of Finland is driven by short-term reactiveness. However, in our study, we also found that short-term reactiveness and the notion of timeliness can refer to time windows ranging from months to weeks and, sometimes, merely days. The common recommendation by policy scholars to boost uptake of evidence by making it timely and relevant is therefore far from simple…(More)”.