Puneet Varma (Editor)

Evidence based policy

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Evidence-based policy is public policy informed by rigorously established objective evidence. It is an extension of the idea of evidence-based medicine to all areas of public policy. An important aspect of evidence-based policy is the use of scientifically rigorous studies such as randomized controlled trials to identify programs and practices capable of improving policy-relevant outcomes. However, some areas of knowledge are not well served by quantitative research, leading to debate about the methods and instruments that are considered critical for the collection of relevant evidence. Good data, analytical skills and political support, as such, are seen as the important elements.


Although evidence-based policy can be traced as far back as the fourteenth century, it was more recently popularized by the Blair Government in the United Kingdom. The Blair Government said they wanted to end the ideological led-based decision making for policy making. For example, a UK Government white paper published in 1999 ("Modernising Government") noted that Government "must produce policies that really deal with problems, that are forward-looking and shaped by evidence rather than a response to short-term pressures; that tackle causes not symptoms".

Evidence-based policy is associated with Adrian Smith because in his 1996 presidential address to the Royal Statistical Society, Smith questioned the current process of policy making and urged for a more “evidence-based approach” commenting that it has “valuable lessons to offer”.

History of evidence-based policy

The earliest form of evidence-based policy was tariff-making in Australia which was required under legislation to be educated by the public report issued by the Tariff Board. These reports were initially only reporting on the impacts but changed to also report on the effects of industries and the economy.

The term "evidence-based policy" has evolved from "evidence-based medicine", in which research findings are used as the support for clinical decisions and evidence is gathered by randomized controlled trials (RCTs), which is comparing a treatment group with a placebo group to measure results. In 1993, the Cochrane Collaboration was established in the UK, and works to keep all RCTs up-to-date and provides "Cochrane reviews" which provides primary research in human health and health policy. There was then an increase in research and policy activists pushing for more evidence-based policy-making which led to the formation of the sister organization to Cochrane Collaboration, the Campbell Collaboration in 1999. The Campbell Collaboration conducts reviews on the best evidence that analyzes the effects of social and educational policies and practices.

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) became involved in the push for more evidence-based policy making with its 1.3 million pound grant to the Evidence Network in 1999. The Evidence Network is a center for evidence-based policy and practice and is similar to both the Campbell and Cochrane Collaboration.

More recently the Alliance for Useful Evidence has been established, with funding from ESRC, Big Lottery and Nesta, to champion the use of evidence in social policy and practice. The Alliance is a UK-wide network that promotes the use of high quality evidence to inform decisions on strategy, policy and practice through advocacy, publishing research, sharing ideas and advice, and holding events and training.

The methodology of evidence-based policy

There are many methodologies for evidence-based policy but they all share the following characteristics:

  • Tests a theory as to why the policy will be effective and what the impacts of the policy will be if it is successful
  • Includes a counterfactual: what would have occurred if the policy had not been implemented
  • Incorporates some measurement of the impact
  • Examines both direct and indirect effects that occur because of the policy
  • Separates the uncertainties and controls for other influences outside of the policy that may have an effect on the outcome
  • Should be able to be tested and replicated by a third party
  • The form of methodology used with evidence-based policy fit under the category of a cost-benefit framework and are created to estimate a net payoff if the policy was to be implemented. Because there is a difficulty in quantifying some effects and outcomes of the policy, it is mostly focused broadly on whether or not benefits will outweigh costs, instead of using specific values.

    Evidence-based development policy

    The Overseas Development Institute has pioneered RAPID Outcome Mapping Approach (ROMA) over the past five years as a means to help aid donors and partners better transform research into policy initiatives.

    Key lessons of evidence-based policy-making

    Six key lessons have been developed, which are:

    1. Policy processes are complex and rarely linear or logical and simply presenting information to policy-makers and expecting them to act upon it is very unlikely to work. Policy processes are not purely linear as they have various stages that each take varying lengths of time to complete and may in fact be conducted simultaneously. Strategies must be fluid.
    2. Policy is often only weakly informed by research-based evidence due to information gaps, secrecy, the need for speedy responses, political expediency and the fact that policy makers are rarely scientists.
    3. Research-based evidence can contribute to policies that have a dramatic impact on lives. Success stories quoted in the UK's Department for International Development's (DFID) new research strategy include a 22% reduction in neonatal mortality in Ghana as a result of helping women begin breastfeeding within one hour of giving birth, and a 43% reduction in deaths among HIV positive children using a widely available antibiotic.
    4. The need for a holistic understanding of the context in which the policy is to be implemented.
    5. Policy entrepreneurs need additional skills to influence policy. They need to be political fixers, able to understand the politics and identify the key players. They need to be good storytellers, able to synthesise simple compelling stories from the results of the research. They need to be good networkers to work effectively with all the other stakeholders, and they need to be good engineers, building a programme that pulls all of this together.
    6. Policy entrepreneurs need clear intent – they need to really want to do it. Turning a researcher into a policy entrepreneur, or a research institute or department into a policy-focused think tank involves a fundamental re-orientation towards policy engagement rather than academic achievement; engaging much more with the policy community; developing a research agenda focusing on policy issues rather than academic interests; acquiring new skills or building multidisciplinary teams; establishing new internal systems and incentives; spending much more on communications; producing a different range of outputs; and working more in partnerships and networks.

    These lessons show that the relationship between research, policy and practice is complex, multi-factoral, non-linear, and highly context specific. What works in one situation may not work in another. Developing effective strategies in complex environments is not straightforward. Simple tools such as cost–benefit analysis, logical frameworks, traditional project management tools and others may not work on their own, as they fail to take into account the existing complexity.

    Based on research conducted in six Asian and African countries, the Future Health Systems consortium has identified a set of key strategies for improving uptake of evidence in to policy, including: improving the technical capacity of policy-makers; better packaging of research findings; use of social networks; establishment of fora to assist in linking evidence with policy outcomes.

    RAPID Outcome Mapping Approach

    ROMA approach takes these lessons into account has been field tested through more than 40 workshops and training courses worldwide. It is an eight-step approach for each of which the ODI has developed resources and policy tools to ensure each step is comprehensively addressed:

    1. Define a clear, overarching policy objective.
    2. Map the policy context around that issue and identify the key factors that may influence the policy process. The RAPID framework provides a useful checklist of questions.
    3. Identify the key influential stakeholders. RAPID’s Alignment, Interest and Influence Matrix (AIIM) can be used to map actors along three dimensions: the degree of alignment (i.e. agreement) with the proposed policy, their level of interest in the issue, and their ability to exert influence on the policy process.
    4. Develop a theory of change - identify the changes needed among them if they are to support the desired policy outcome.
    5. Develop a strategy to achieve the milestone changes in the process - Force Field Analysis is a flexible tool that can be used to further understand the forces supporting and opposing the desired policy change and suggest concrete responses.
    6. Ensure the engagement team has the competencies required to operationalise the strategy.
    7. Establish an action plan for meeting the desired policy objective - useful tools include the RAPID Information matrix, DFID’s log frame and IDRC’s Outcome Mapping Strategy Map among them.
    8. Develop a monitoring and learning system, not only to track progress, make any necessary adjustments and assess the effectiveness of the approach, but also to learn lessons for the future.

    An example of ROMA approach can be seen in the case of the Wildlife Enforcement Monitoring System (WEMS) Initiative where a systematic approach of agreement has brought its implementation in Africa.


    This has resulted in:

    1. Over 50 case studies on successful evidence-based policy engagement have been compiled, a network
    2. Development and facilitation of the evidence-based policy in Development Network (ebpdn), which links more than 20 institutional partners and thousands of practitioners working on evidence-based policy processes.
    3. Creating an array of practical toolkits designed with civil society organisations, researchers and progressive policy makers in mind. For example, at the recent Tokyo Conference on Combating Wildlife crime, United Nations University and ESRI presented the first case of evidence based policy making maps on enforcement and compliance of CITES convention.
    4. Direct support to civil society organisations (CSOs) to provide training in policy influencing and strategic communication.
    5. Strengthening the capacity for the UK Department for International Development (DFID) to influence other actors.

    The Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy

    The Coalition is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, whose mission is to increase government effectiveness through the use of rigorous evidence about “what works.” Since 2001, the Coalition's work with U.S. Congressional and Executive Branch officials has advanced evidence-based reforms in U.S. social programs, which have been enacted into law and policy. The Coalition has no affiliation with any programs or program models, and no financial interest in the policy ideas it supports, enabling it to serve as an independent, objective source of expertise to government officials on evidence-based policy.


    Evidence-based policy Wikipedia