Musings on research, international development and other stuff

Scottish independence and the falacy of evidence-BASED policy


indyrefAs I may have mentioned before, I am a proud Scot. I have therefore been following with interest the debates leading up to the Scottish referendum on independence which will take place on the 18th September (for BBC coverage see here or, more entertainingly, watch this fabulous independence megamix). Since I live in England, I don’t get to vote – and even if I did, as a serving civil servant it would not be appropriate for me to discuss my view here. But I do think the independence debate highlights some important messages about evidence and policy making – namely the fact that policy can not be made BASED on evidence alone.

The main reason for this is that before you make a policy decision you need to decide what policy outcome you wish to achieve – and this decision will be influenced by a whole range of factors including your beliefs, your political views, your upbringing etc. etc. So in the case of the independence debate, as eloquently pointed out by @cairneypaul in this blog, the people of Scotland need to decide what their priorities for the future of Scotland will be. Some will feel that financial stability is the priority, others will focus on the future of the Trident nuclear deterant, some will focus on their desire for policy decisions to be made locally, while others will care most about preservation of a historic union.

Only once people are aware of what their priorities are, will evidence really come in to play. In an ideal world there would then be a perfect evidence base which would provide an answer on which option (yes or no) would be most likely to lead to different policy outcome(s). But of course we all know that we don’t live in an ideal world, and so in the independence debate – as in most policy decisions – the evidence is contradictory, incomplete and contested. And therefore a second reason why a decision cannot be fully ‘evidence-based‘ is that voters will need to assess the evidence, and a certain degree of subjectivity will inevitably come into this appraisal.

It is for the above reasons that I strongly prefer the term ‘evidence-informed’ to the term ‘evidence-based’*. Evidence-informed decision making IS possible – it involves decision makers consulting and appraising a range of evidence sources and using the information to inform their decision. As such, two policy makers may make completely different policy decisions which have both been fully informed by the evidence. Likewise, my decision to happily eat a large slice of chocolate cake instead of going to the gym can be completely evidence-informed since I get to choose which outcomes I am seeking :-).

A final point is that since evidence can inform policies designed to lead to diverse outcomes, evidence-informed policy making is not inevitably a ‘good thing’; if a policy maker has nefarious aims, she can use evidence to help her achieve these in the same way that a more altruistic policy maker can use evidence to benefit others. Thus efforts to support evidence-informed policy will only be beneficial when those making decisions are actually motivated to improve the lives of others.


*n.b. I am a big supporter of the ‘evidence-based policy in development’ network since I suspect the name choice is mainly historical rather than a statement of policy. In fact, judging by discussions via the listserve, I would suspect that most members prefer the term evidence-informed policy.



4 thoughts on “Scottish independence and the falacy of evidence-BASED policy

  1. The choice of name is a story on its own… it goes something like this: (to the original network members) you have 3 choices. Choice 1 is terrible, choice 2 spells a word that sounds like another word you would never want to say out in public, and choice 3 is ebpdn… which one do you want? ah, you chose a 4th name we had not thought of before and that is actually better than the one we wanted. Unfortunately, the domain name is taken, so ebpdn it is then.

    Come to think about it, it sounds a great deal like policymaking

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