Articles The Human Factor: who makes policy and how?

The Human Factor: who makes policy and how?

Dr Kathryn Oliver (University of Oxford) argues that we need a clearer understanding of who is already influencing policy, and how, if we want to increase the role of academic evidence in policymaking.

It’s easy – and fun – to be sarcastic about how “bad” policymakers are at using evidence to inform their decision-making. And, let’s face it, it’s not exactly difficult to find examples where politicians misrepresent data, ignore or otherwise fail to engage with what is apparently overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It is very easy to say: “What more do these people need before they can make their minds up?!’

Let’s examine some of the assumptions behind that statement. Firstly, it’s arguing that there is always a role for academic evidence in policymaking – that policy and politics ought to be based primarily, perhaps solely on research evidence – overriding other valid voices, pressures, and politicians’ democratic mandate. Then, there are a few assumptions about the kinds of ways in which decisions get made: maybe there’s an ‘Aha!’ moment, maybe more of a tipping point, or maybe (and many academics would argue ideally) a weighing-up of the pros and cons, leading to a considered and rational judgement. Either way, it’s easy to assume that the relationship between evidence and policy is linear, that decisions can and should be taken after research is conducted, and that policymakers react in consistent and technocratic ways.

But as Paul Cairney points out, these models of policy do not reflect the many and varied ways in which policy is made; or indeed the ways in which any of us, as human beings, make decisions. Paul argues that we need to understand the gut reactions, the lurches of attention from issue to issue, the crisis-driven response, the ways in which certain ideas or policies have currency and validity. He argues that is it important to understand the realities of policy making, not just to keep political scientists employed, but also so that people who want to influence policy can do so in an effective and harm-free way.

Ethically and morally, it is hard to disagree with this. I would add to this that it is arguably a disgraceful waste of resources to do ‘applied’ research (that is, research aiming to change policy and /or practice) without a really good understanding of the effects the research would ideally have. Who are the market audience, and what share is predicted? What is the strategy to maximise this market share? Fundamentally, how will introducing this new piece of knowledge into the ecosystem result in benefits, rather than harms?

Paul offers a solution to those interested in influencing policy – to find out where the action is, who is involved, and to build a coalition of like-minded individuals who will be voices in the room, when decisions are being made. I suspect that this is a strategy already employed by many academics, lobbyists, and others with vested interests. We already know that some academics are able to influence policy; are invited to become expert witnesses for Select Committees; communicate with government in many and varied ways. Academics are already some of the voices in the room. Focusing solely on how to improve the size and volume of that voice risks ignoring how the whole discussion evolves and operates.

Academics may soon be put in the farcical position of both trying to prove their research has impact on policy and practice through the REF, and also being forbidden from trying to engage directly with government and Parliament. To me, this reads like an incoherent and panicked response to a potentially legitimate concern – i.e. are the academics who do make it into the room the ‘best’, most representative, most useful academics? Does quality of academic correlate with skill in negotiating the complex political machinery? Might it not be that the voices in the room represent a select, even elite bunch?

For me, then, the burning question is – Who gets to play a part in these processes? How? How do they come to be there? What is their credibility once they are there? What are the relationships between them and the decision-makers? Mapping out the networks between the individuals involved, and considering carefully how these may influence the various forms of interaction between academics and policymakers will tell us not only how to successfully engage with the complexity of policy, but who is already doing it. Only then can we ask what they are doing with these privileged positions, and how well.


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.