… Public policy that is based on evidence

VancouverSun.com – opinion/editorials
December 28, 2011.

As we anticipate the beginning of a new year, we think of ways to make the next year better than the current one. So we make lists — lists of resolutions that typically involve changes to our behaviour, and wish lists that usually concern changes to others’ behaviour, especially that of governments.

And so the wish list often includes wishes that our governments be more responsive to our concerns, that they do a better job of representing us. Yet while it is true that democratic governments must represent the people, it’s also important that they do so responsibly. And that means they must advocate for, and implement, policies that are likely to be both effective and cost-effective. In other words, they must be committed to evidence-based policy.

That’s easier said than done, of course, but it’s not impossible. In most fields in which governments legislate — health care, the environment, justice — a wealth of evidence exists about the likely effects of various policies and the likely costs associated with them.

Now to be sure, the “wealth of evidence” is a mixed blessing. Its sheer volume can easily overburden even the most conscientious policy-makers, and can make it difficult to distinguish solid, methodologically sound studies from more questionable ones. However, various initiatives, such as the Cochrane Collaboration in medicine, have arisen precisely to provide researchers and policy-makers with a clearer indication of the state of knowledge in given areas.

That doesn’t solve the problem for government policy-makers, however, since they are often required to legislate in areas informed more by the social sciences, such as education or criminology, than science. And while the Campbell Collaboration — a sister project of the Cochrane Collaboration that assesses social-science evidence — helps to provide some clarity, the evidence is often not as robust as that in medicine and science.

Furthermore, in social sciences there often exist questions about exactly what counts as evidence. And, of course, policy-makers — or more specifically, politicians — are not typically free to decide everything on the basis of what the latest, or best, study indicates. Indeed, politicians must also be responsive to the concerns of members of the public, corporations, lobbyists, think-tanks, and yes, journalists.

This is only a cursory review of the difficulties in committing to a program of evidence-based policy, to match the highly successful evidence-based medicine that has existed for decades. But as we said, despite the difficulties, it’s not impossible — and given what’s at stake, it’s imperative that politicians commit to supporting evidence-based policy.

After all, it is no exaggeration to say that the decisions we make on health care, justice and the environment will influence the future of our country, and of our species. And similarly, it’s no exaggeration to say that, in most areas, there exists enough — albeit imperfect — evidence to make rational policy decisions.

So at the top of our wish list for next year is the wish that all elected officials, and all political parties, commit to a program of evidence-based policy. This means that regardless of their political ideology, they should propose and implement policies that, according to the evidence, will actually reduce crime or homelessness or global warming, or whatever it is the policies are ostensibly aimed at. And furthermore, politicians and political parties should also be able to provide solid evidence that these policies will achieve their aims in the most cost-effective way.

In recent years, we have heard a great deal about populist politics, about politicians who seek to ingratiate themselves with the public to obtain and maintain popularity.

Now it is time to hear about evidence-based politics, about politicians who commit to doing what works, and what’s economical, for everyone’s welfare.

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