Governments and public sector organisations consider evidence-based or evidence-informed policymaking as one of the pillars of good governance. That is to say: policies that are informed by scientific knowledge, expertise and evidence. In the research programme ‘Power of Evidence’, Valérie Pattyn and Johan Christensen examine to what extent and under which conditions governments actually work in an evidence-based way and what consequences this has for our democracy.
The Netherlands is one of the leaders when it comes to investing in the production of scientific knowledge, the generation of evaluation reports and the deployment of experts. But does all the knowledge and expertise that is being mobilised actually end up in the hands of policymakers, and influence policy changes? Or do the reports end up in a drawer? Valérie Pattyn: ‘This is what we are going to investigate in our research. I personally believe it is also our duty towards citizens to figure that out.’
Johan Christensen: ‘There is also the question of what role experts should play in policymaking from a democratic perspective. After all, relying on the advice of unelected experts requires a lot of trust from citizens. Systematically studying this tension between the use of expertise and democracy is also one of the objectives of the research programme.’
The right moment
Not only from a scientific and citizen’s perspective, but also based on practice itself, the two researchers from the Institute of Public Administration note that the momentum is there to launch their own research programme around this. Johan Christensen: ‘Evidence-based policy is very high on the agenda of international organisations, such as the OECD and the European Commission. One example is a large-scale international project aimed at capacity building in evidence-based policy, in which the Netherlands is also taking part.’ In order to understand how science for policy systems can be designed better, it is crucial to first get an overview of the actual role of knowledge in policy. With the Power of Evidence programme, the researchers are trying to contribute to this.
In-house knowledge and expertise
The ‘Power of Evidence’ research programme is based on two recent grants that Pattyn and Christensen received around this theme, which focus on evidence in a broad sense and across national borders. Pattyn: ‘In the past, both of us conducted a lot of research on evidence-based policymaking and developed considerable expertise on the topic. The projects we have secured each look at the theme from a different angle, but the research programme allows us to take full advantage of the synergies, and makes full use of the wide range of expertise we have on the theme within the Institute of Public Administration.’
Bringing practice and science together
During a workshop last month in Brussels, the two researchers brought together participants from practice and science to discuss how governments can organize the relationship between science and policy. This included representatives from the OECD and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, but also scientists from different disciplines that focus on the role of knowledge in policy, including political science, sociology, public administration and philosophy.
Christensen: ‘The response from both practitioners and scientists was very positive. Various large reform projects have already started, but these naturally require sound scientific knowledge. Scientifically, we can provide them with the supporting information they need for these initiatives.’ Pattyn: ‘We see it as our role to make a connection between different disciplinary perspectives as much as possible, as well as between science and practice. We are therefore genuinely open to exchanging ideas on this topic with interested parties.’
Leading centre for research, advice and education
In a long-term perspective, Pattyn and Christensen hope to become a catalyst, a reference hub, in the field of evidence-based policymaking. Christensen: ‘We want Leiden University to become a leading centre for research, advice and, of course, education on this topic. Our research programme will be central to that.’ Pattyn: ‘Not only nationally, but also internationally. Not only focused on practice, but also peer-to-peer for science. The first steps have been taken, we will now continue building.’
Text: Margriet van der Zee