Research report

How do government agencies use evidence?

1 Jun 2013

Executive summary: Significant research gaps remain in our understanding about what happens in side government agencies in relation to the production, commissioning, assessment and incorporation of research-based evidence into their policy advice and their program delivery and review activities. Practices and capabilities vary enormously across types of public agencies, levels of government, and policy areas. Understanding these patterns and potentialities better would help focus attention on effective methods for improving the quality of decision-making through evidence­-informed processes.

Currently, public agencies gather administrative information from their own operations, as a necessary component of undertaking program management and reporting; but there is little information about how rigorous information related to programs is actually used for performance management and program review. Little is known about how agencies access information from ‘external’ sources of expertise, which external sources are favored over others, and how external information is used for developing better programs or performance metrics. One key feature of an evidence-­based policy process would be extent to which evaluation processes are built into the standard operating procedures of policy and service delivery units. Building an analysis and evaluation culture requires the availability of skilled staff as well as organizational leadership that values high quality analysis.

Although it is widely agreed that evidence-­based improvements to policy and administrative systems are both desirable and possible, we cannot expect that a democratic public policy system could be primarily shaped by objective research findings. Various forms of evidence, both rigorous and otherwise, will continue to inform the policy process. Democratic leaders will pay attention to stakeholders and public opinion as well as scientific evidence. However, persistent efforts and targeted investments could help to create more systematic link ages between rigorous research and the processes of policy-­making. Progress towards a more evidence-­informed policy and administrative system would require commitment and investment at several levels – individuals, organizational units, and cross-­organizational relationships.

Rigorous research findings on key issues are not yet available in many areas for informing policy and program managers. Creating such a research base takes time and resources. Even where reliable evidence has been documented, it is not always available in formats that meet the practical needs of policy and program managers. The professional knowledge of experienced service providers and program managers is especially relevant in social care domains where robust experimental knowledge is unlikely to emerge. Scientific and professional knowledge need to interact. The ‘translation’ of research findings into 7 codes, standards and procedures for professional practice has advanced in many areas but extracting ‘lessons’ from research findings and adopting them successfully in professional practice entails complex issues of education, relation ships and collaboration.

This brief review highlights known areas of strength in the research base for evidence-­based policies and programs, together with matters where there are significant research gaps hindering a solid understanding of evidence­use by government agencies in social policy-making and program development. The review draws attention to important background differences between the roles and resources for the various levels of government, and differences in administrative cultures and practices between policy areas and across national boundaries. This analysis leads to the identification of several key priorities for further research, taking into account what is already known concerning the key re search issues. These priorities include better understanding of:

  • how major policy reforms, and associated program implementation, have been significantly assisted by rigorous research;
  • the lessons that emerge from implementation and translational research in service innovation;
  • sources of variation in the use of expert information by a range of different public agencies;
  • factors that might improve the use of research-­based evidence by government agencies in priority fields of social policy;
  • support for lower levels of government to conduct their core activities in ways that make effective use of relevant information;
  • methods for encouraging best practice in relation to evidence-­based tri als, improving interaction and exchange processes, organizing expert fo rums and civic engagement, improving research receptivity and capabil ity within public agencies;
  • methods for institutionalizing respect for rigorous evidence across the turbulence of political and electoral changes;
  • the appropriate adoption and adaptation of international experience.
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