Articles Working with the ‘I’ in evidence

Working with the ‘I’ in evidence

Those working to increase the use of evidence need to understand the internal journey that’s required for people to change their behaviour, writes Kerry McCarthy.

Back in 2015 I started to wonder what, as an evaluation practitioner, I should understand about big data and coding.

After nosing around relevant and interesting resources I was ambivalent about what, if anything, I should do next.  My internal dialogue went something like this:

“This is important stuff, I am getting behind.”

 “I don’t know enough about statistics / computer science / coding. This isn’t what I do.”

“But it looks interesting, I can learn!”

“No-one else around me is talking about it, my clients aren’t asking, so maybe it doesn’t matter?”

 “But if I get it I could do some useful new stuff, I could bid for different work.”

“It’s not going away, it’s only going to get more important”

In the end my ambivalent state became more uncomfortable than taking the plunge to try something new. Of course, I needed more than motivation to follow through with this decision. I needed access to information, to relevant networks, opportunities to apply new thinking and skills, positive reinforcement to continue and so on.

But that uncomfortable ambivalence, the dissonance between what I was doing and what I thought I should be doing, was an important initial step in changing my behaviour.

While a lot of focus is placed on producing and accessing high quality evidence it is important to take account of the individual, and her or his internal change – the ‘I’ – as the Alliance works to improve the use of evidence.

One strand of the Alliance’s theory of change recognises this, focusing on activities and outcomes to increase decision-makers’ motivation to use high quality evidence. Motivation – why we do things – involves external stimulus and incentives. And the Alliance’s theory of change is rich with things for people to read and do – reports, events, case studies, awards, training. But motivation also involves an internal journey, especially during that all-important step of overcoming ambivalence to do something different.

How can that internal journey be supported?

When making the case for using evidence, also make space to listen and hear the detail of ambivalence.  Supporting motivation can’t rely solely on evidence ‘products’, evangelising about the positive or insisting that change is a necessity. Doing so may even build further resistance if a person’s concerns have not been expressed and worked through.  Careful listening to the dissonance between where someone is and where they want to be (not broadcasting where you are and where you want them to be) provides an opportunity to reflect back the self-talk that supports movement towards change.  Careful listening also provides an opportunity to identify the common themes across individual journeys – what patterns of thinking move people towards better use of evidence, what builds resistance?

It is also important to understand how individuals’ narratives around change intersect with and are influenced by systemic blocks and enablers to using evidence. Where is the receptivity to evidence in the organisation, the wider system? How can individuals be supported to align their actions to this receptivity? If a person’s actions to improve use of evidence are positively received and applied within an organisation their individual self-efficacy will likely be enhanced, encouraging further action. Perhaps the Alliance’s commitment to Evidence Champions supporting behaviour change is a route to better understanding patterns of  individual dissonance and organisation/system wide receptivity around using evidence.

Recognising the ‘I’ in evidence is important. A scientific approach to developing evidence is a collective, explicit endeavour resulting in tangible artefacts – the presentation, the report. But how evidence is understood, valued and applied (or not) is often a more individual, internal and implicit process. Working with that is at the heart of achieving change towards routine, appropriate use of high quality evidence.

This discussion of motivation is informed by Prochaska and Di Clemente’s transtheoretical model of behaviour change.


Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Remember you can 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.