Articles Persistence pays: lessons from a UK department on evidence-informed policy-making

Persistence pays: lessons from a UK department on evidence-informed policy-making

A decade ago, writes Louise Shaxson, Research Fellow at the Overseas Development Institute’s Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) Programme, the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) began to grapple with the challenge of evidence-based policy. Defra found that effective use of evidence needs to follow four basic principles with coherent support from across an organisation to make evidence part of business as usual. By working in stages, argues Shaxson, Defra was able to build strong foundations and take a strategic approach to evidence-based policy-making that other departments can, and should be supported to replicate.

10 years ago I began consultancy work for the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). It was the beginning of the evidence-based policy-making era and Defra was trying to work out how to deliver on complex policy goals, such as sustainability, as well as dealing with criticism over poor evidence use during the ‘mad cow’ and ‘foot & mouth’ disease crises.

At the time there was absolutely no guidance on how a government department should open the mythical black box of policy-making and make better use of evidence. And so a small team in Defra set out to develop its first Evidence Investment Strategy (EIS) from the ground up. Over the last decade, Defra repeated this process twice, embedding it deeper across the department and its entire evidence network. So for others trying to adopt a strategic evidence-informed approach to policy-making, what can we learn from the Defra experience?

Four principles for effective evidence use

Defra’s first EIS identified four basic principles for effective evidence use: 1. Put policy in the lead: managing the evidence-base should be an integral part of policy-making, not assigned only to science teams. 2. Use a broad definition of robust evidence: include knowledge from formal research, evaluation, citizens and other stakeholders. 3. Focus investment on long-term priorities: there is pressure to respond to short-term priorities, but evidence can deliver value for money by exploring long-term opportunities and risks. 4. Value existing evidence: it’s important to analyse existing and emerging evidence as well as commissioning new.

These may sound obvious. But, implementing them across a government department takes time. Support for the four principles needs to be organisation wide. Individual policy teams may have specific research strategies, but unless you work across teams, you can’t strategically allocate budgets or personnel to meet priority evidence needs.

Previous attempts to rationalise Defra’s science budget had not explicitly linked science spending to policy requirements. Defra’s first EIS mapped out its evidence-base for all policy priorities. It used those maps to develop clear statements of what evidence it needed to reach its policy goals. For the first time, there was equal involvement from evidence providers (science teams) and users (policy teams) in managing the evidence-base.

Making it part of everyday business

Once the whole organisation is working together, evidence investment plans can link to regular business planning processes, ensuring efficient and effective use of human and financial resources. Defra’s second EIS worked to feed its business planning process directly into evidence plans, so as to support policy priorities by specific evidence activities and budgets. Personnel were moved around, strengthening links between policy and evidence teams; after trying a few models, scientists moved to sit in policy teams, though a small central team oversees evidence quality and manages the central evidence budget.

Once evidence investment strategies become business as usual, you can start to look across your wider network of organisations. This allows you to leverage strengths and deliver greater value for money. Defra’s third EIS is developing joint evidence action plans across a network of organisations. Difficult decisions will have to be taken about who uses which evidence budget to inform policy priorities, and it will need to be both inclusive and transparent.

Where next?

A recent case study ‘Investing in Evidence: Lessons from the UK Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs’, published by the Knowledge Sector Initiative describes Defra’s three EIS in detail. Some of the lessons will be transferable and some not. Defra is a very well-resourced organisation compared to some in developing countries. But there is a lot to be learned from Defra. Working in stages allows you to build a strong foundation to embed strategic approaches across the organisation and eventually the evidence network. Defra aimed high, adapted as it went, and kept going.

If we are serious about doing evidence-based policy-making we need to support departments through similar sorts of processes.


Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Join us (it’s free and open to all) and find out more about the how we champion the use of evidence in social policy and practice.