Drugs, government, morality and policymaking

Mark Monaghan interviews Alex Stevens, Professor of Criminology and theorist of evidence-based policy, about his experiences of government policymaking

23 . 10 . 2019

Mark Monaghan (MM): Okay, so could you just tell me a little bit about your job role and what you do?

Alex Stevens (AS): Sure, I’m a Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Kent and a criminologist who specialises in the study of drugs and drugs policy and the links between drugs and crime. I am also President of the International Society for the Study of Drug Policy and a member of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. I have also published research on the use of evidence in policy making.

MM: Excellent, we will come on to that in a little bit, but I wondered what do you understand by the term ‘the utilisation of research evidence’?

AS: So, policy makers make use of a variety of sources of information when they are making policy and one of them is the research that is published by academics in the field of study, but that is certainly not the only source of information they draw on or maybe the most important one.

MM: Sure so what kinds of other information do they draw on?

AS: Their own preferences for the policy and in moral terms, media reports, think tank reports, conversations with colleagues, practical information that they have picked up from people working in the field or perhaps from their own backgrounds. There is a large variety of information that they draw on and there is a hierarchy of importance for those and research evidence as published in peer-reviewed articles would be fairly near the bottom.

MM: So you made a leading contribution to the field with your 2011 piece ‘Telling Policy Stories’ in the Journal of Social Policy. Can you give us some insight into how that research emerged?

AS: Sure. I was given the opportunity to do a secondment working in a senior policy making unit within the British civil service and I went into that wanting to learn more about the process and to see how it worked. I was so fascinated whilst I was doing it that I decided to write that article – Telling Policy Stories – because the gap between the rhetoric on how evidence based policy is made and the actual processes through which evidence is filtered when making policy seems to be quite large and very interesting in terms of how it works and the effects it has on the policies produced.

MM: Yeah, the thing that strikes me in that article is the bit about the ‘killer charts’ could you say some more about that and their function?

AS: Yeah, as I say in the article there is a general preference in policy making circles for simplicity and certainty. Most academic research in the social sciences tends to show complexity and uncertainty in social processes and certainly when looking at the causes and outcomes of policy interventions. The findings of research tend to be that ‘not enough is known’ or ‘that we need more research’ or that ‘there might be an indication of a potential outcome but that is certainly not certain in a given context’. Those types of qualified claims are not very popular in policy circles because policy makers are looking to create a narrative that is persuasive and certainty and simplicity are more persuasive than uncertainty and complexity. So, I was taught whilst working in the civil service that the ideal way to present an argument was to do so by way of a killer chart. A killer chart is a graph of which the implication is so simple that it needs almost no explanation. So, killer charts tend to represent the world as being full of simple correlations between inputs and outputs but this is not recognisable to social scientists who value and appreciate the complexity of social processes.

MM: It’s a lovely explanation of things that go on in government that you read in the literature from the outside, but to see it acknowledge from the inside is really revealing. Moving on, who do you see as doing some of the principle contributions in the field in how the use of research evidence is understood?

AS: I think there is a sort of mainstream and a critical way of looking at this. So, the mainstream views on how evidence is used in policy can be characterised in the work of Sandra Nutley and colleagues. This focuses on a pluralist attempt to improve the link between research and policy making and so she has written a lot on how we need to have more direct contact, more relationships and more brokerage between policy and research and this sits with the broader spectrum of the field which looks at the policy making process as an equally balanced field between competing interests. If you look at the work of Kingdon on policy agendas and policy windows and the work of Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith on Advocacy Coalition Frameworks then there tends to be this view that within a pluralist society where there is open access to the decision making process and people are competing to have their policy goals understood. The policy network approach is similar in that it envisages an exchange within a market of ideas that is not necessarily tilted towards any particular outcome. My argument would be that we need to take a more structuralist view of how democratic processes including the use of evidence are made. So I prefer to use terms provided by Habermas about how there is a difference between rational communication and strategic communication. Whilst evidence-based policy might present itself as being a rational process of fitting means to ends, we are actually living in a strategic communication situation where people are using information strategically in order to stall rational communication and so to achieve their preferred goals.

MM: I have not really seen that approach anywhere else really, have you developed that off the back of case studies in drugs policy specifically or is it broader than that?

AS: Yeah. It was in part with some frustration with the pluralist model, but more so with constructionist critiques of it. So if you look at Maartin Hajer’s work on discourse coalitions, for example, there is some value in that, but it inherits the crypto-normativism of Foucault in talking about policy making as just another discourse and so it doesn’t provide a platform for immanent critique of how policy ends up misrepresenting the best, most accurate and most appropriate understandings of what reality might actually be.

MM: Are you working on anything further to this at the moment?

AS: The things I have been working on recently are more directly policy relevant rather than a critique of policy. I have been doing with Caitlin Hughes a review of alternative ways of dealing with the possession of drugs for the Irish Government and that has come up with an interesting typology of ways of doing depenalisation, diversion or decriminalisation. There is also an interesting programme theory on different contexts, mechanisms and outcomes of the ways of doing alternatives. It has been an interesting process presenting that to the Irish Government, but we’ll see what comes out at the other end of that. I am also doing some more work for the ACMD on reducing drug-related harms that arise in transitions between custody and the community. There are huge problems as we see in the most recent data on the huge increase in violence in prisons and the increasing inability of community rehabilitation companies to provide adequate resettlement services. There are massive problems that are contributing to higher than necessary levels of reoffending and higher than necessary levels of drug-related deaths on release from prison. Now from my previous experience of producing a report on reducing drug-related deaths in the UK, I am not very optimistic that the current Government will take on board the criticisms of the report we are writing and others in the field and do anything effective that will reduce harms in the transition from custody to the community. It is important, however, that the democratic process is informed by information about what is actually going on.

MM: Yeah. I’ve always thought it is worthwhile doing research because political winds change and someone could always pick up those ideas one, two, three, five years into the future maybe even more

AS: Let’s hope so

MM: How do you see the future of evidence-based policy making or utilising research evidence?

AS: There are some interesting ideas coming out aren’t there, the work that you’re doing, the work that Kari Lancaster and Alison Ritter are doing. Looking at other ways of imagining how we inform policy making. There is also the work that Giulia Zampini is leading me towards around the influence of morality when policy making happens. So what I hope we will get is a more sophisticated understanding of the links between evidence and policy that leaves behind a more pluralist, linear model which doesn’t reflect the reality of how it actually works and starts to take into account the issues of structural inequalities in power, the influence of normative preferences and the opportunities to incorporate a wider range of methods and voices in informing the policy process.

MM: Finally, a more general question. Is the better use of research evidence for the better of society?

AS: Absolutely! As long as the research is good, but that is another question I am writing about at the moment about the ontological politics of drug policy research and how some methods that are promoted by data scientists or radical constructionists might be misleading. We need to be constantly improving the knowledge base and the methods we use to create that knowledge as well as improving the processes through which that knowledge is transformed into action.

MM: What kinds of methods have potential in that respect?

AS: Well, I think you will agree with me that realist methods are useful and that is what I will be arguing at the plenary session of the ISSDP conference in Paris in May. The critical realist ontology is the way to bridge the divide between qualitative and quantitative and overcome some of the issues in causal influence and radical constructionism towards providing better, more informed accounts of the contexts, mechanisms and outcomes that are in play in drug policy and in reducing drug-related harms.

MM: Well that sounds like music to my ears. Excellent. Thanks for your time.

Don’t miss out!

Join our online community to receive news on latest thinking, research, events, trainings, and our regular newsletter.