OPINION4 July 2022

Putting evidence and policymaking to work

Covid-19 Opinion Public Sector UK

What is the future of evidence-informed policymaking? Ben Marshall at Ipsos examines the impact of Covid-19 on government decision making.

Wooden blocks spelling the word 'policy'

Policymaking and the use of evidence were disrupted massively during the Covid-19 pandemic. Some of Ipsos Public Affairs’ clients told us how they experienced, for them, relatively heady (and undoubtedly stressful) days at the start of the pandemic when they were invited to meetings to shape policy in ways they hadn’t been previously.

In spring 2020, the prevailing government narrative was about being policy “led by the science” and the role, and value, of evidence in decision-making was evident for all to see. In response to the pandemic, government developed 157 policies in the first few months of 2020, according to Sense about Science, and the emergency brought unprecedented numbers of people into contact with the evidence behind government policy.

While these developments helped to push policy-orientated social research and evaluation into new territory, there were countervailing forces. Most obviously, researchers working in both client- and agency-side settings faced the daunting prospect of having to meet unprecedented demand for evidence at a time when collecting it was harder than ever. This created a spirit of innovation and a ‘can do/get it done’ mentality – something clients tell us they want to see normalised.

Looking through a longer lens, the pandemic has not been the only disruptive influence on policymaking and the use of evidence. These endeavours have been complicated by devolution and the pressing need to address intractable challenges (‘wicked’ policy challenges) which have made policymaking much messier and more difficult. At the same time, technological transformation has spawned a proliferation of different data sources, creating new and exciting opportunities to generate insights.

To those of us who can remember it, the pandemic did not feel like a return to the Blair government’s period of ‘evidence-based policymaking’ (arguably more a mantra than a prescribed method of policymaking) but, instead, a confident stride forwards from its pre-pandemic version – what became known as ‘evidence-informed policymaking’. We seemed to move to something akin to a more empowering ‘evidence-enabled policymaking’ with evidence shaping policy more actively than previously.

‘Conscious coupling’ and complexity
These developments were reinforced by two trends which had pre-dated the pandemic: an apparent desire to construct and deliver better policy by reducing the gap between politics and people through social research and engagement, and a push towards a more systematic understanding of ‘what works’ through evaluation and assessment.

There is more to do. In the Declaration on Government Reform, the government stated its aim to improve policymaking and delivery, and it set up the Evaluation Task Force in 2020 to “ensure evidence and evaluation sits at the heart” of decision-making.

Based on the learnings we have taken from the pandemic, allied to a series of conversations with clients, we think there are two main areas to focus on:

  1. ‘Conscious coupling’. We see value in mapping interest in evidence, or ‘demand’ from policymakers, so that they sit alongside strategies for sourcing evidence, or ‘supply’. Policy and evidence systems need to be formulated so that they move forwards in tandem from the outset
  2. Working with the grain of complexity. It is important to take multiple factors into account when collecting and using evidence and ‘doing’ policy. This means achieving what we call ‘blended best’ and striking a balance between often-competing tensions. This ought to help to secure rigour and responsiveness, as well as building resilience.

These are the two threads running through our evidently better framework, which contains 22 potential features of evidence-enabled policymaking. It has been designed to encourage critical thinking about what matters, what works, and how things can be improved.

What next? Those of us passionate about evidence – particularly evidence of what the public want and need – and who want to use it to shape and understand what works in policy terms, must surely stay close to the evolving needs of policymakers while building awareness of the ever-increasing breadth and depth of evidence we can provide.

By calling our report Evidently better, we have given a name to an industry-wide aspiration as well as a practical approach to achieving improvement. The report can be accessed here. 

Ben Marshall is research director and head of clients at Ipsos Public Affairs