Debating the politics of evidence‐based policy

Date01 December 2017
Published date01 December 2017
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1111/padm.12373
AuthorJoshua Newman
BOOK REVIEW ESSAY
Debating the politics of evidence-based policy
Joshua Newman
College of Business, Government, and Law, Flinders University of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia
Paul Cairney, The politics of evidence-based policy making, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, 137 pp., £35.99 (hb), ISBN:
978-1-137-51780-7
Gerry Stoker and Mark Evans (Eds.), Evidence-based policy making in the social sciences: Methods that matter, Policy
Press, 2016, 276 pp., £21.59 (pb), ISBN: 978-1447329374
Justin Parkhurst, The politics of evidence: From evidence-based policy to the good governance of evidence, Routledge,
2017, 182 pp., £36.99 (pb), ISBN: 9781138 570382
1|INTRODUCTION
The debate on the relationship between research and public policy has experienced a remarkable revival in recent
years. Although many of the core issues and arguments have not changed, the nomenclature certainly has: in a pre-
vious era of scholarship (e.g., Caplan 1979; Weiss 1979; Beyer and Trice 1982), the subject was referred to as
research utilization, but nowadays it is usually labelled evidence-based policy. This is a subtle difference, but one
that has important implications for how problems (and proposed solutions) are understood.
These three recent books (by Paul Cairney, Gerry Stoker and Mark Evans, and Justin Parkhurst) provide some
excellent examples of the current state of the scholarship on this subject. Taken together, they offer a good plat-
form for launching a discussion on evidence-based policyand research utilizationbecause they largely agree on
the basic assumptions that underpin the debates, even if they offer different prescriptions for what should be done.
But more importantly, these books also demonstrate some of the missed opportunities to move the debate beyond
the things that were said in the 1970s and early 1980s. While the literature is clearly expanding, the debates seem
to have reached something of an impasse.
There are ways that this d iscourse can be advanc ed, both intellectual ly and practically. Bu t before that can
happen, the problem needs to be articulated better, and the key actors responsible for addressing the problem
need to be identified. If progress is to be made, we will need a clearer picture of what we are debating and
why we are discussing it in the first placeas well as a better understandi ng of who should be involve d. At
present, even in the best scholarship on evidence-based policy, these poin ts frequently remain hazy.
2|THE ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS OF THE DEBATE
Stoker and Evans, Parkhurst, and Cairney, like the wider scholarship on this subject, start with the same basic
assumption: getting research to inform public policy is a challenge, because policy-making is political, not systematic.
Decisions made in the public sector are the result of efforts to balance competing societal interests, resolve power
conflicts, and appease groups with widely divergent values, not the end-point of a linear, rational, instrumental
DOI: 10.1111/padm.12373
Public Administration. 2017;95:11071112. wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/padm © 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd 1107

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