Sneaking Evidence into Policy-Making: the role of evaluator-turned-advisor

“Your job is to slip some common sense past the prime minister without her noticing.”

Rachel Glennerster, now Executive Director of J-PAL, remembers being tasked with the above burden while working for the UK Treasury during Margaret Thatcher’s term.  It’s a shared burden among policy advisors, and one that can be made easier or harder, depending on the political environment of the time.  The more evaluators are called to provide new proof for policy, the more we must learn how to navigate the political world in a way that furthers the mission of making evidence-based decisions.

Few people from either party are thrilled with the latest U.S. election.  We suddenly need to confront the realization that we’re working in a new political age of populism. A large proportion of the voter population has expressed resentment toward ‘experts,’ and January brings an administration led by a self-proclaimed outsider. So now that it is time to come up with some concrete, factual ideas in the White House, how will we sneak evidence into policy?

First, generate new, relevant evidence.  It’s time to take advantage of the buzzwords and trending topics we saw during the debates.  For example, Chicago became a popular target during the election, so concrete evidence from that specific context is a particularly good investment.  In fact, NORC at the University of Chicago is a powerhouse of social data production with relevant studies ready for dissemination.

Emphasize transparency in research:  More than ever, the public is ready to doubt the intentions of experts.  And it’s good to call out bias.  As an evaluator, you must not only provide proof of policy impact, but also prove your own trustworthiness to provide those results.  It is always good practice to explain your funding sources, your institutional affiliations, everything.  Admit any involvement from the beginning.  Be beyond reproach, so that when you are picked-apart, you can still deliver a credible analysis.

Fight against defunding of research:  Sometimes legislators like to sneak in a research-defunding clause to completely unrelated legislation.  But laws preventing research can backfire and have long-term consequences which harm evidence-based decision making.  Highly politicized topics are actually the exact topics that need additional studies, not research bans.  Keep an eye out for this maneuver and call your senators and representatives out on it.

Be user-friendly.  Explain your research in intuitive terms.  Don’t just deliver results, but pitch their importance and what benefit it has for users from both political parties.  Interpret your results succinctly and provide concrete action steps.  As evaluators, it’s important that we can transition seamlessly from data-heads to civic sidekicks so that the evaluations are seen, understood, and used.

Also, check out the great read from Campbell Collaboration’s blog on evidence-based decisions in a post-truth world.


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