How politicians use evidence - and how public servants can help them find it

Tuesday, January 7, 2020 - 09:40

This piece was originally published on December 16, 2019 on Apolitical following the release of our latest research report Evidence in Action

When science and evidence are ignored in government decisions, citizens suffer. In the face of global challenges like climate change, and a growing landscape of misinformation, ensuring our governments are equipped to use robust evidence in their decisions is more important than ever.

Governments across the world are improving the capacity for evidence-informed decision-making by policy- and decision-makers, exemplified through positions like government science advisers and new tools for more transparency and access to science.

While these steps are important, there is still much work to be done to understand how evidence-informed decision-making works in practice. What types of evidence do government decision-makers need and want in their work? How do they find information? What barriers do they face in using the most robust information?

Politics is not only based on evidence

In a recent research project for Evidence for Democracy (E4D), we try to answer these questions.

E4D is a Canadian non-profit, non-partisan organisation promoting the transparent use of evidence by governments. We recently published our latest report, Evidence in Action, which is based on one-on-one interviews with Canadian members of Parliament, and explores how MPs find and use information in their work.

The good news is that MPs have a number of motivations for using strong evidence. They don’t want to be publicly embarrassed for not knowing the facts, they understand that good research builds stronger arguments, they feel they “owe it” to constituents, and more.

However, they also identify barriers to effective evidence-based decision-making in practice.

Take, for example, the rapid pace of politics. While MPs receive a myriad of information sources that feed in to their work – from research to news to information and reports shared by constituents or lobby groups – time limitations and information overload can limit their ability to find and use the information they need. Evaluating information can be a challenge, too.

Nearly 60% of MPs in our study highlighted the challenge of navigating information that may be biased or spun to influence their thinking.

This is only magnified in the face of online misinformation and bad actors. In addition, MPs sometimes face obstacles in using evidence, for example when evidence is in conflict with constituent needs or wants, or the beliefs and mandates of the government.

Several MPs said that politics is rarely ever fully “evidence-based”, as political decisions must also encompass factors like economics, societal perceptions, and existing policies and laws. In reality, integrating the best evidence into political decisions can be a challenge.

Finding evidence under pressure

We believe public servants have a big role to play in supporting MPs to find and use evidence.

94% of MPs in the study identify the Library of Parliament as a trusted source of objective, relevant and credible information, as it is perceived as both well-researched and without partisan bias.

Many MPs rely on public servants in government departments, such as ministerial staffers or senior analysts, to act as knowledge brokers and provide information.

Government reports, such as those from the auditor general or federal scientists, are also considered to be trusted and useful. Also, MPs’ staff, such as legislative assistants or research analysts, play a critical role as gatekeepers of information, often tasked with interpreting large amounts of information into a digestible format for members.

Despite the importance of government players, there are still gaps that could and should be addressed.

MPs have made several recommendations to improve the links between research and policy. Given the high pressures of political and policy work, which often have short deadlines, many MPs prefer to speak directly to experts to ask specific questions and interpret challenging information.

Direct access to experts is also important for policy analysts, tasked with supporting senior decision-makers through policy briefs and documents. However, finding experts can be hard, especially in novel fields and on short notice.

One suggestion from MPs was to improve searchable databases of researchers and experts, which could help ensure that analysts and policymakers can rapidly access up-to-date and robust information.

Giving researchers a say

Changes to government processes could also allow researchers to gain better access and respond to government questions.

For example, more transparent, early public sharing of political or government questions that may require science and research could help scientists more effectively connect their work to politics or policymakers, including shaping their research in a more policy-relevant way.

This could be further bolstered by better training for scientists on how government works, and improved engagement and relationship-building between researchers and policy teams.

Though some policymakers rely on a research background to help them interpret science, this training is not common nor expected for policy experts. However, in the face of a growing problem of misinformation, increased access to training for policy experts on how to recognise robust information could be helpful.

New tools, such as in-house science advisers or science officers, and better training on science communication for researchers could help ensure that research and evidence is brokered in a way that makes it accessible and understandable to a policy audience.

The public service has an important role to play in ensuring our decision-makers are equipped to use the best available evidence. There’s more we can do to help ensure we’re making the most of these connections.

Kimberly Girling

Research and Policy Director

Kimberly Girling completed a PhD in Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. During her work as a scientist, she developed a passion for science policy, and has participated in a number of initiatives relating to global and public health, drug policy and harm reduction.