Listening to the debate launching Transformation Evidence and a new community

Marc Geddes gathered the evidence from colleagues who came together to consider next steps in the debate about evidence-informed policy

28 . 09 . 2018

On 24-25 September, I was at a workshop that brought together a range of academics and policy practitioners to discuss the role of evidence in policy. Although I consider myself new to this sub-field, it surprised me that so many people – no matter how much or how little they have studied this area – felt themselves to be just as much of an outsider as me. It was simultaneously reassuring (I’m not alone) and thought-provoking (how had developments over the last 30+ years not led to more coherence?). In fact, it was for these very reasons that the workshop took place: to discuss past developments; the extent to which there is a community; and the field’s future. It was in this context that I plunged into a range of debates on evidence-informed policy and practice (or EIPP).

The initial morning started full-on: Huw Davies’ overview of the last 20 years, Annette Boazand Kathryn Oliver’s mapping of the field, and a session for participants to discuss priorities for the field. I found this fascinating because of the diversity of ideas, which – to me, at least – demonstrated rich potential for future research. Subsequent discussions over the workshop were loosely related to these initial discussions. For me, there were two particularly interesting themes: the role of academics in policy-making; and the links between evidence use and the public/democracy. I want to cover each in turn – if only briefly.

First, the role of academics. One discussion arose following Nick Mays’ presentation, and particularly his reference to an article by the chief scientific adviser in the Department of Health, who said that he did not want policy recommendations from academics. This was interesting given the changing context of the Research Excellence Framework and growing academic-policy engagement. It sparked a discussion around an age-old question: what is the right approach and role for researchers in policy?

@Graham_P_Martin tweeted: 'Nick Mays: policymakers tend not to want researchers to make policy recommendations. Research evidence is 1 consideration among many for policymakers, & researchers aren't privy to full range of considerations and tradeoffs that those in policy positions must make.' 

Meanwhile, Paul Cairney discussed different strategies that academics could use to increase the likelihood of policy-makers using your research (summarised here). In the same panel, Stephen Meek also gave advice:

@oliver_kathryn tweeted: Meek: Best advice? Listen for what people need, what and why, then you're more likely to be helpful (not just following a checklist of suggestions). Don't expect policy to be neat – it's more chaotic than that. Be humble, don't patronise #transformURE

Liz Farley-Ripple (@FarleyRipple) tweeted: Meek: best advice ever: THERE IS NO RULE FOR ENGAGING POLICYMAKERS; sometimes it’s a brief, sometimes it’s not…but approach with patience and humility

@Graham_P_Martin tweeted @stephenmeek52 speaks from experience when he advises against a formulaic approach to policy influence: sometimes a two-page brief will be right, sometimes it won't; sometimes a recommendation will be welcomed, sometimes not. Listen, don't tick off a checklist. #transformure

@WarrenPearce tweeted: Meek also gave an important reminder that policy is not simply putting research evidence into practice; it is much more complex.

Idly musing whether the meaning of the word 'policy' is changing…. 

I want to put this into conversation with the second theme that I found very interesting, namely the extent of and challenges for greater public participation in EIPP. The reason I link this with Meek’s comment is because I believe that policy-makers need to consider the political and democratic contexts in which policy takes place, not just evidence alone (which I believe Meek was also hinting at).

Andreas Brøgger (@AndBrogger) tweeted: Policy in a democratic society could be defined as the honest negotiation of values and interests of members of a society. This leaves evidence in a more instrumental or descriptive role, next to the process or in an instrumental role when goals have been defined. #TransformURE

The ‘role of the public’ took different guises: in discussions about co-production of research, ensuring a diversity of knowledge in policy, democratising the use of knowledge, challenging prevailing hierarchies of knowledge and evidence, heightening the role of experiential knowledge in policy-making, and so on. At the workshop, the role of co-production was a recurrent theme (when is it appropriate? Who should participate? At what stages?), while other discussions focused on democratising knowledge.

Andreas Brøgger (@AndBrogger) tweeted: How can a research funder decide what the goals for research should be? What the impacts will be for it to be considered a succes? Citizen involvement and democratic decision making might be an ideal to follow, but difficult to do in good ways #TransformURE

Kathryn Oliver (@oliver_kathryn) tweeted: So you want to coproduce your research? It’s really tough! Expensive, difficult, complex. ⁦@judefransman⁩ offers 8 principles to help #transformURE

Liz Farley-Ripple (@FarleyRipple) tweeted: #TransformURE for the coproduction codevelopment and RPP convo, follow this

Dr Kieran Fenby-Hulse (@KFenbyHulse)tweeted: Do universities (really) want coproduced research? Do policymaker? Do researchers? Do stakeholders? Having a clear sense of who wants what will help with understanding and start conversations on infrastructure and funding for this activity. #transformURE

Roman Kislov (@RomanKislov) tweeted: @Sarah_A_Hartley calling for critical approaches to co-production, acknowledging that this is a long, drawn-out, iterative process which is difficult to do properly when government funding scemes force you to have your questions set in stone before research starts#transformURE
Given the link between the public, democracy and evidence/knowledge, something that struck me is the lack of linkage back to those institutions that are traditionally regarded as representing the public’s voice in politics, i.e. parliaments. I am not hugely surprised: the UK Parliament, as most other legislatures, are rarely seen in a positive light. This was borne out in the only discussion that I did have, informally over dinner, about the role of the House of Lords: it’s old, stuffy, irrelevant, barely makes a dent on policy, etc. I had forgotten how ingrained the feeling was amongst most academics and commentators of the peripheral role of Parliament in policy-making. Ironic, perhaps, at a conference about EIPP because the weight of research evidence demonstrates that the UK Parliament is a significant policy actor– even if largely behind the scenes. This links back to the earlier two themes: first, academics should not forget that Parliament can act as a site for policy influencewhen they consider what role academics can and should play in the policy-making world; and second, raises a question over the link between the public and expert knowledge in spaces (such as parliaments) that draws on both of them extensively.

What this demonstrates to me is that Parliament remains a blind-spot for academics studying evidence use, and that there is a lot of potential here to understand the role of legislatures in EIPP. Specifically, this suggests: first, more research on the role of evidence in legislatures is needed (a process already begun by POST itself); second, a willingness from EIPP scholars to engage more with parliamentary settings; and third, encouragement to those scholars interested in engaging with the public or practitioners to consider Parliament as a possible venue.

All in all, a great event – and huge credit to the organisers, Kathryn and Annette. I will closely follow developments on Twitter (#transformURE) and through the website that’s been launched to keep the conversation going.

Marc Geddes is Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Edinburgh. His most recent research explored how scrutiny is interpreted and practised by MPs in the House of Commons. He is on Twitter: @marcgeddes.

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