How can we realize evidence based politics?

20 May 2021

Never before in modern history has there been a stronger demonstration of evidence based politics than in the current Covid-19 situation. The pandemic delivers the right momentum in the policy and political realm to implement long lasting ambitions for structuring evidence informed policies or to generate new ones. When doing so, it is highly instrumental to make use of ambitious new initiatives in different parts of the world.

USA creates new momentum
Watchers of evidence based policy will perceive the current Covid-restrictions as one phenomenal experiment on how politics, policy interventions and evidence can interact. These watchers often look at these processes more fundamentally, surpassing the short term urgency of the current crisis. It was therefore remarkable how little attention was paid to the “Foundation for Evidence Based Policymaking Act” which was passed in the USA in 2019. This statute is often referred to as the “Evidence Act” and was drafted as a politically neutral instrument with the intention of making evidence – mostly driven by big data analysis – a stronger driver behind policymaking. The proof may still be in the pudding, but the USA  is now seriously taking up this challenge and has so generated new momentum for the evidence based – or evidence informed, as many prefer –  policy movement. Profound data analysis will deliver new insights into the effectiveness of new and existing policy interventions. We can look forward to learning from their outcome.

Not only evidence, also procedures to manage political risks
Most politicians in democratic countries realize that the reward for new policies will not be the efficacy of how effective their policies have been, but how much public appraisal – voters, more precisely – will reward their actions. Many politicians have their own political priorities and some are more driven by “policy based evidence” than vice versa. Many governments therefore realize that their checks and balance system need to be able to prevent some politicians to start policies that may prove to be destructive to the general interest.

The Netherlands politics and academia joined forces
In the Netherlands, the government has recently created a system whereby new and substantial policy interventions need to deliver a profound investigation on the effectiveness of the envisioned measures before they are started (Ex Ante Evaluation). Parliament controls this investigation but it is carried out by the relevant ministry and will be scientifically reviewed and scrutinized. Actively supported by the Dutch national science system and parliament itself, Dutch ministries decided that they will no longer wait for the evaluation of their policies to be completed until they have been carried out together; they have created a system in which the benefits, values and costs have to be both defined and evaluated before the main expenditures have been decided on. If this process – also referred to as Strategic Evaluation Planning – can be implemented well, politicians have a better story to tell to their voters. Because they can show that their envisioned policies prove to be effective, and sustained by evidence from their own country or abroad.

The evidence that needs to be generated can be based on ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ science, on Big Data or qualitative research. But we also need to add a bureaucratic element to this, as these obligatory policy procedures will force politicians to use evidence as early as possible. In combining the use of procedures and evidence, we may come close to something that may be described as evidence based politics, even without a Covid-19 crisis.

We understand that most politicians often prefer to reach out to the people’s heart, but their message will stick much longer when it also reaches the people's mind.

Frank Zwetsloot is founder & Director & Tomas van den Broeke is Unit manager evidence, data & policy at ScienceWorks. Check out the course 'Using Evidence for more Effective Policies' 9-13 May 2022, Washington D.C., United States