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The routes of evidence to policy are indirect and delayed, hence clear communication is needed– concludes Phil Davies at 3ie-LIDC seminar ‘Getting Evidence into Policy’

Wednesday, February 20, 2013 - 17:15 to 18:45

Dr. Phil Davies, Head of the London office of 3ie, the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation, presented at the 3ie-LIDC seminar ‘What works in international development’ this month.

Davies started with outlining what existing research tells us about how evidence is used in policy. According to Carols Weiss (1982), we should make a distinction between instrumental, conceptual and symbolic use of evidence. The first of these involves direct application of research in specific policy and is very rare. Conceptual use is about using research for general enlightenment over time and is therefore less direct and less specific. Lastly, symbolic use is probably most frequent - it is the use of research to legitimise a policy that is going to be adopted anyway.

Crucially, said Davies, research rarely provides a straight answer to a specific problem. Rather, it offers background, ideas and data that can indirectly influence policy-makers. The routes of evidence to policy are usually indirect and delayed.

It must be born in mind that lots of other factors influence policy-making in addition to evidence, for instance values and the broader decision-making context, experience and expertise of policy-makers, available resources, lobbyists and pressure groups, the bureaucratic culture, etc.

The difficulty we encounter when trying to use research in policy-making is linked to the nature of evidence itself. Evidence is hardly ever self-evident, it is almost always probabilistic and context-specific. It is contestable and, hence, often contested. Some evidence is of poor quality, or based on single studies that should be synthesised before wide ranging conclusions can be drawn. Also, various stakeholders have different notions of what constitutes evidence. Policy-makers expect evidence to ‘tell a story’, to seem ‘reasonable’, and be clear and timely. Researchers, on the other hand, want evidence to be scientific (generalisable), proven empirically, driven by theory, and produced at its own pace. These different understandings of what evidence is clearly indicate a need for knowledge translation and transfer.

Subsequently, Davies highlighted most common barriers to using evidence in policy. Policy-makers are not always familiar with the research process. Similarly, researchers often have limited knowledge of how policies are made. Often policy-makers don’t have physical access to evidence, particularly in low and middle incomes countries, and if they do, they often lack the understanding required to interpret it. The fault often lies on part of the researchers who fail to present evidence in an intelligible way.  Another key barrier is timeliness and availability – research takes long to be produced, whereas policy-makers need evidence quickly. Davies, however, suggested that the use of evidence for strategic policy-making (over five, ten and fifteen year future time periods) does allow more opportunities for evidence to be used than is the case with operational (i.e. day-to-day) policy-making.

Overcoming these barriers requires on-going involvement of decision-makers in research and vice versa. Interpersonal, face-to-face interactions are needed to build understanding and trust over time. Disseminating printed materials alone is not sufficient. This can be done with the help of willing and knowledgeable brokers who provide a bridge between research and policy. Most importantly, policy-makers must feel that they own the evidence as it is being produced, and not just the policy.


About the speaker:

Dr Davies is Head of the London office of 3ie, the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation. He has responsibilities for 3ie’s Systematic Reviews programme, and he represents 3ie in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
Prior to joining 3ie Dr Davies was the Executive Director of Oxford Evidentia, a research consultancy company that specializes in public policy analysis and monitoring. From 2000-20007 Dr Davies was a senior civil servant in the UK Cabinet Office and HM Treasury, responsible for policy evaluation and analysis. Before joining the Cabinet Office Dr Davies was a University Lecturer in Social and Political Science at the University of Oxford, and he has held academic positions at the University of Aberdeen and the University of California, San Diego.


Download the powerpoint presentation

About the seminar:

This seminar is part of the 3ie-LIDC Seminar Series 'What Works in International Development'. The series explores key issues in impact evaluation of development interventions. It runs on a monthly basis on Wednesday afternoons.

PDF icon 3ie-LIDC Presentation 20.02.13.pdf340.82 KB