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Too much instinct, too little evidence in policy-making, says Gluckman

Tuesday 3rd September 2013

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The New Zealand public service is in "dire need" of building "basic competencies in research methodologies and critical appraisal skills" to improve the quality of policy advice and outcomes, says the government's chief science advisor, Peter Gluckman.

In a report on the role of evidence in policy formation and implementation, Gluckman reports a highly variable approach to the use of scientifically rigorous evidence in recommending, implementing and assessing the impacts of new public policy.

In some cases, senior public servants seemed to prefer "to work from their own beliefs or rely on their own experience."

"At its extreme, I find this deficiency to be unacceptable," he said, noting concern also about departments that rely "primarily on internal research of questionable quality and/or commissioning external advice that was not scientifically peer-reviewed."

While there was excellent practice in some parts of the public service, but "some policy practitioners held the view that their primary role was to fulfil ministerial directives, rather than to provide an evidence-informed range of policy options on which Ministers could develop a position."

"Surprisingly, this was held in some departments that most need to use objective evidence in their day-to-day operation," Gluckman says.

Without naming names, he recommends the appointment of chief science advisors to the Ministries of Health, Education, Business, Innovation and Employment, Transport, and the Department of Internal Affairs.

"Education policy is an area where it is easy for received wisdom to determine policy," the report says. "Values are often conflated with evidence, again making obvious the need for independent scientific advice."

The trend towards science advisors had been under way in other countries since the 1990's, when it was pioneered in the UK public service, said Gluckman. However, in New Zealand "there has been insufficient attention paid to proactive investment in research needed to support policy formation.

"For at least the last 20 years, our public research funding bodies have not prioritised policy-relevant research, resulting in disconnect between central agency needs and funded research priorities," said Gluckman.

Some agencies assumed "their primary mandate is to implement political decisions", which devalued the role of evidence-based policy making and evaluation.

"It can be argued that these issues are particularly acute in a small country such as New Zealand," he argues. "Inevitably we have a less complex system of connectivity between elected officials, policy makers, the public and the media. This, combined with the pressures created by a very short electoral cycle, results in greater potential for evidence to be ignored.

"While the political process is influenced by anecdote, it must be noted that the plural of anecdote is not data."

The report argues there will be growing need for evidence-based research to help inform public debate on policy options, especially as the pace of new technological discoveries increased, many of which would face challenges to their public acceptability.

While public values could often legitimately be at odds with formal assessments of risk, having objective, evidence-based research to inform the inevitable debates was increasingly important, Gluckman said.

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