Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Role of Evidence in Policy

Nutley, Walter and Davies (2009: 8) state that the scope and accuracy of research in policy is usually the subject of competing opinions[1] and claims[2], but the debate is often not so much about whether research has been used, but more about how it has been used. This is important to note that the argument given by the writers should be understood with the foundation that what constitutes the nature of research is broad and there is also no specific definition about research (Court, Hovland & Young 2005, cited in Nutley, Walter and Davis 2009: 2).

In my evaluation, the argument given by Nutley, Walter and Davies above is true. I agree with the overall statement. However, we need to be more careful to define whether something is real public opinion or just merely interest groups’ opinion. Using another perspectives (for example political perspective) to understand the broad discussion on public policy is also important.
The influence of opinion – especially public opinion – in the policy making process is avowed by most of social scientist who study the relationship between public opinion and public policy in democratic states (Burstein 2003: 1). In addition, Hall (2008: 1) argues that one of the influential factors in policy making or decisions is research finding. Supporting argument given by Nutley, Walter and Davies (2009: 8) that the dispute of the research is more about how research has been used can also be seen in the article written by Clarence (2002: 3) that the contribution of research and policy to practice must be equal, research must be independence with high quality of agreed standard, the need for research to be adjusted in a form that policy and decision makers can understand. Moreover, Clarence (2002: 2) also add that the debate about what actually constitutes evidence and how the evidence is selected and prioritised is happened widely and become concern to encourage the utilisation of research.

On the other hand, Gilens and Page (2014: 576) find the high correlation between elite and mass preferences as the result of the effort of interest groups and policy makers in shaping opinion. They also find that ordinary citizens’ influence in policy making is almost zero. By using political perspective, Gilens and Page (2014: 565) find that preferences and actions of organized interest group are sometimes positively associated with public opinion and thereby shaping improper statistical relationship between opinion and policy. The point given by Gilens and Page above is in line with the Clarence’s (2002: 6) stance about evidence that evidence is actually a decision and decision can never be objective.

To conclude, argument given by Nutley, Walter and Davies (2002: 8) that research in policy is mainly about competing opinions and claims is true. Public opinion and expert opinion are not “value free” and claims from interest groups or policy makers can also become counterfeited public opinion. Therefore, it is important to ensure that research for policy is conducted with agreed standard, independence, and integrity values.***

Written by: Agung Wasono (March 2015)


Burstein, P. (2003) ‘The Impact of Public Opinion on Public Policy: A Review and an Agenda’, Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 56 (29): 28 – 40.

Clarence, E. (2002) ‘Technocracy revisited: The new evidence based policy movement’, Public Policy and Administration, Vol. 11 (3): 1-11.

Gilens, M, B I Page. (2014) ‘Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens’, American Political Science Association, Vol. 12 (3): 564 – 581.

Hall, R. (2008) Applied Social Research: Planning, designing and conducting real-world research, Melbourne: Palgrave Macmillan.

Nutley, S, I Walter & H. Davies. (2009) ‘Past, present and possible futures for evidence-based policy’, In Argryrous, G (ed), Evidence for Policy and Decision-Making, Sydney: UNSW Press

[1] According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word “opinion” means “a belief, judgment, or way of thinking about something, or what someone thinks about a particular thing, or advice from someone with special knowledge, or advice from an expert.
[2] According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word “claim” means “to say that (something) is true when some people may say it is not true”.