Whatever happened to evidence-based policy making?

Speech by Professor Gary Banks: “One of the challenges in talking about EBPM (evidence-based policy making), which I had not fully appreciated last time, was that it means different things to different people, especially academics. As a result, disagreements, misunderstandings and controversies (or faux controversies) have abounded. And these may have contributed to the demise of the expression, if not the concept.

For example, some have interpreted the term EBPM so literally as to insist that the word “based” be replaced by “influenced”, arguing that policy decisions are rarely based on evidence alone. That of course is true, but few using the term (myself included) would have thought otherwise. And I am sure no-one in an audience such as this, especially in our nation’s capital, believes policy decisions could derive solely from evidence — or even rational analysis!

If you’ll pardon a quotation from my earlier address: “Values, interests, personalities, timing, circumstance and happenstance – in short, democracy – determine what actually happens” (EBPM: What is it? How do we get it?). Indeed it is precisely because of such multiple influences, that “evidence” has a potentially significant role to play.

So, adopting the position from Alice in Wonderland, I am inclined to stick with the term EBPM, which I choose to mean an approach to policy-making that makes systematic provision for evidence and analysis. Far from the deterministic straw man depicted in certain academic articles, it is an approach that seeks to achieve policy decisions that are better informed in a substantive sense, accepting that they will nevertheless ultimately be – and in a democracy need to be — political in nature.

A second and more significant area of debate concerns the meaning and value of “evidence” itself. There are a number of strands involved.

Evidentiary elitism?

One relates to methodology, and can be likened to the differences between the thresholds for a finding of guilt under civil and criminal law (“balance of probabilities” versus “beyond reasonable doubt”).

Some analysts have argued that, to be useful for policy, evidence must involve rigorous unbiased research techniques, the “gold standard” for which are “randomized control trials”. The “randomistas”, to use the term which headlines Andrew Leigh’s new book (Leigh, 2018), claim that only such a methodology is able to truly tell us “what works”

However adopting this exacting standard from the medical research world would leave policy makers with an excellent tool of limited application. Its forte is testing a specific policy or program relative to business as usual, akin to drug tests involving a placebo for a control group. And there are some inspiring examples of insights gained. But for many areas of public policy the technique is not practicable. Even where it is, it requires that a case has to some extent already been made. And while it can identify the extent to which a particular program “works”, it is less useful for understanding why, or whether something else might work even better.

That is not to say that any evidence will do. Setting the quality bar too low is the bigger problem in practice and the notion of a hierarchy of methodologies is helpful. However, no such analytical tools are self-sufficient for policy-making purposes and in my view are best thought of as components of a “cost benefit framework” – one that enables comparisons of different options, employing those estimation techniques that are most fit for purpose. Though challenging to populate fully with monetized data, CBA provides a coherent conceptual basis for assessing the net social impacts of different policy choices – which is what EBPM must aspire to as its contribution to (political) policy decisions….(More)”.