Comparing cultures of evidence use in policy settings
By Niklas Andersen and Kat Smith
For two days in Summer 2022, SKAPE hosted a workshop that gathered a number of distinguished scholars whose work has explored the ways in which knowledge and evidence are used in policymaking. Our aim was to discuss whether there are distinct ‘cultures of evidence’ in particular national settings or policy areas.
The impetus for the workshop was our growing sense that, in order to better understand the ways evidence is used in policymaking, scholarship needs to be more attuned to contextual variations. Our thinking stemmed, initially, from a collaborative book chapter that we had been invited to develop, in which we compared our understanding of the use of evidence in policy across the UK, the USA and Scandinavian settings. Our respective research on this topic stretched across health, economic and welfare policies, and our sense was that there were some important variations in how evidence was conceived, sought and used by national context and by substantive policy topics.
The comparative element of this work was necessarily limited – we were, after all, comparing work that we had each undertaken independently rather than reflecting on data from research that employed a comparative design. Nonetheless, our tentative conclusion was that a comparative perspective produced fruitful insights regarding the potentially contingent nature of evidence use in policy. Through our conversations, we were able to begin identifying contextual features that seemed important in explaining variations in the way policymakers (and analysts working in policy settings) approach evidence. We were, therefore, keen to continue these conversations and the most obvious starting point, it seemed to us, was to bring relevant scholars together from a range of national settings, working across a small number of policy areas, to begin exploring whether distinct national cultures of evidence exist and, if so, what this tells us about evidence use in policy settings.
The ensuing SKAPE workshop was enjoyable and wide-ranging but what quickly emerged was a need to reverse the central question guiding the workshop: rather than using the concept of ‘cultures of evidence’ to compare across countries and topics, discussions soon evolved into conversations in which we (somewhat unsuccessfully) tried to pin down the illusive concept of ‘culture’. The broad, somewhat ambiguous nature of organizational culture thus provided a fertile grounding for formulating a host of important questions about cultures of evidence use in policy settings:
- How might existing definitions of organizational culture be applied to ‘cultures of evidence’ in policy settings?
- If we can identify differences in factors influencing how evidence is understood and used within a given context, do these differences appear to be primarily formal (e.g. rules, regulations, systems and procedures) or informal (e.g. norms, discourses and values) in nature?
- Who are the dominant actors who shape cultures of evidence use within policy settings and how do they influence this culture?
- How context-specific do ‘cultures of evidence’ appear to be? Do they appear to vary more by national context, organizational context or policy topic (e.g. health compared to education)?
- How do cultures of evidence change over time and why?
We believe that answering these questions might help progress research on evidence use by illuminating normative, conceptual and power dimensions of evidence use, features that we believe are too often overlooked in research that tends to focus on analysing practices, processes and systems. If, for example, such analysis finds that organisational values and power dynamics play a crucial role in explaining variations in evidence use, this may call into question some of the (largely acontextual) assumptions guiding much research-informed advice on enhancing evidence use.
The SKAPE workshop participants are currently planning a special issue on which we can build on these discussions. The aim is to begin weaving together the empirical and theoretical strands of scholarship on evidence use that help develop the concept of ‘cultures of evidence’ in ways that enable comparisons that pay heed to values, perceptions and power, as well as practices, processes and systems.