Evidence and expertise in 21st century policy-making

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‘Governing by knowing’

In times of contested politics and politics of contestation, the legitimacy of political systems depends on their capacity to deliver outcomes based on transparent, legitimate and accountable policy-making.

Adding to the transparency, legitimacy and accountability of evidence-informed policy-making, reliable information and data are essential means of ‘governing by knowing’. They play a vital role in policy design informed by factual evidence and expert knowledge, rather than by legal frameworks, administrative procedures, political preferences, partisan interests, cultural values or emotional perceptions alone.

As one of the most prominent representations of factual knowledge, statistical data represent one of the most robust forms of evidence. Data manifest approximations to social reality and are essential instruments of politics and collective political action. With the proliferation of indices and composite indicators, a new data culture has emerged that extends the use of statistical data beyond simple measurements. Statistical data have become advocacy and policy tools that perform new qualitative functions in collective political action. Prominent examples of such flag-planting and strategic agenda-setting are Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Reporters without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index and measuring exercises of international organisations such as the United Nation Development Programme’s Human Development Index or the OECD’s Better Life Index.

How do data and evidence production and policy-making interact? Below, I raise a few considerations on both the data supply and data demand sides of evidence-informed policy-making.

 Evidence as a dynamic factor in policy-making

As a central tool of evidence-informed policy-making, scientific expertise and evidence serve instrumental, conceptual, strategic, symbolic and political purposes. They inform policy development, support evaluation processes, enable strategic planning and foresight, define common goals for progress and development, and enhance multi-dimensional performance assessment.

In this functional perspective, evidence in its various forms has fundamental effects on the governance of and knowledge within the policy process, which – even if described in a simplified linear fashion as stages of the policy cycle – includes the different functions of agenda setting, policy formulation, legitimation/decision-making, implementation, evaluation, as well as maintenance, succession or termination of policies.

The introduction of evidence and expert knowledge into evidence-informed policy-making alters the policy process. Participation, brokerage and network governance become central enablers of the translation and injection of evidence into policy-making.

Futhermore, participatory structures, co-creation and epistemic community-building within evidence communities take shape and knowledge is perceived as an opportunity structure to influence policy content.

Various forms of knowledge also enter into competition with each other and new forms of evidence become relevant and accepted.

Effects on evidence production

The metamorphosis of knowledge and expertise into governance tools affects the genuine work and authority of experts and data providers. It extends the principles of legitimacy, transparency and accountability to the production of evidence and to the generation of policy-relevant expert knowledge, that is no longer steered by the logics of science and research alone. It also requires greater transparency about underlying (institutional, funding or academic) interests, biases in research designs or the potentially normative character of science advice.

Poor transparency, missing contextualisation and communication strategies that fail to translate scientific results into policy-relevant information render evidence and expertise vulnerable to critical public scrutiny and contestation that target both the narratives and power structures that emerge from and result in their production and use. This demand for transparency, context and translation hence reinforces the importance of independence and neutrality of evidence production as key standards for quality and credibility.

The relevance of evidence and data literacy

There are two sides to the science-politics/policy-interface, that is the evidence/policy-maker relationship. On the one hand, we call for neutrality and independence in the production of evidence and data. On the other hand, on the demand side, there is a clear need for evidence and data literacy among the policy actors (both politicians and public officials) who select, evaluate, translate and process evidence.

Understanding statistics, working with data and skilful analysing and arguing with data have become essential challenges for professionals working in public policy-making, analysis, evaluation and scrutiny.

The need to develop common understandings of complex social phenomena and the oversimplification of complexity in the process of translating evidence into measurable policy-relevant proxies can affect evidence use. A feedback loop between evidence literacy and evidence use might also affect knowledge production itself, opening it up to fundamental contestation of expertise and experts.

Furthermore, the production and use of evidence and expertise in policy-making can become circular, and open to strategic and value-based influences driven by the interests of knowledge producers, brokers and users. In its most dysfunctional form, dangers of policy-based evidence-making emerge. This interrelation highlights the necessity for transparency and responsiveness in knowledge creation and the policy context, which expertise should inform.

Potential distortions in the production of evidence and its policy-relevant translation could be countered with the institutionalisation of science advice systems, which generate trust for the uptake and injection of science expertise in policy-making.

Our work to enhance data literacy

Demand side issues are the starting point of GlobalStat’s recent engagement in the International Statistical Literacy Project (ISLP) of the International Association for Statistical Education (IASE) and the International Statistical Institute (ISI). For the ISLP, I conceptualised and chair a new working group on ‘Statistical and Data Literacy in Policy-Making’ that targets statistical and data literacy of actors involved in the policy process. The new working group aims to look into key challenges of the use of statistics and data in evidence-informed politics. It focusses on understanding the relevance, impact and use of data in contemporary policy-making; defining ‘statistical and data literacy’ for policy-making purposes; sensitising about storytelling through data; and raising awareness on the potential normativity and politicisation of quantification.


Gaby Umbach is part-time professor at the Robert Schuman Centre and Director of GlobalStat. She is also non-resident visiting fellow of the European Parliamentary Research Service. Her article ‘Of Numbers, Narratives and Challenges: Data as Evidence in 21st Century Policy-Making’ is forthcoming in the Journal of the International Association for Official Statistics. If you are interested in collaborating in the new ISLP working group on ‘Statistical and Data Literacy in Policy-Making’, please contact her directly.



Feature image source: Consiglio dei ministri, CC-by-NC-SA-3.0