Where the evidence fits: How research findings are used in the policymaking process

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Like so many of us working in research institutions, I seem to spend an increasing amount of my time thinking about ‘research impact’ – and in particular the routes through which findings make their way into government policies.

In reality, finding time in a minister’s diary to tell them about your research is probably near impossible – especially without an existing relationship, which we don’t all have. But talking to civil servants and the analysts who support them can be a much more fruitful approach. So it’s important for researchers to understand how civil servants develop policy, and crucially what questions they ask along the way.

At our recent CLOSER symposium on alcohol consumption in adolescence and early adulthood, Neil Dube of the Department for Education gave a really clear overview of how civil servants go about making policy. What follows is the essence of what he said.

There are three main components of the policymaking process: politics, evidence and delivery. Successful policy lies in that small area in the middle, where all three are balanced appropriately. But of course in reality the three components aren’t always given the same importance or priority.

Figure 1: Components of successful policy



Political considerations can include a number of things, such as:
?the role of Government
?the views of ministers
?the views of stakeholders and the public
?the appetite for risk
?the likely reaction of the media
?the balance between de-centralisation and accountability.


Policymakers will examine the evidence base for a number of things:
?what world experts say about the policy or issue
?what has happened in the UK and other countries
?the robustness of the evidence base
?the gaps in the evidence – and whether they could or should be filled.

Policymakers also look at the findings from assessments: the policy’s likely impact on different parts of the population, the bureaucracy that might be created or saved, and how the policy could be evaluated.


Although delivery takes place towards the end of the process, it needs to be considered at the beginning. So policymakers ask a lot of questions before they start:
?What is the capacity of a sector to deliver the policy?
?Whose views should be gathered, and who should be kept informed?
?Could local solutions be facilitated, for example by sharing information or good practice?
?How could bureaucratic burdens be reduced?
?What is the scope for payment by results to be part of the answer? What about ‘nudge’?

The policymaker’s job is to find which solution(s) strikes the best balance between all of the various factors. So how do civil servants actually do that? The diagram below describes the ‘ideal’ policy development process. Ministers are involved throughout, and the components above run through every stage.

Figure 2: Stages of policy development


Understanding the context

First things first. What exactly is the problem? Who’s affected and how? How would things be different if a policy were implemented?

At this stage civil servants also need to consider whether the problem is even something that the Government should be involved in, and if so, why.

Developing options

Once civil servants are satisfied that they understand the problem and believe the Government should be involved, the next step is to determine the options for reaching the desired outcome.

Creativity and innovation are critical here, not least because what might have worked in the past may no longer be affordable. At this stage civil servants ask:
?What has worked elsewhere (both in other countries, and other fields)?
?What are the risks that result from gaps in evidence?
?What would the impact of the options be on different groups?
?What is the cost and value for money?
?Are the options sustainable?
?What are the risks?
?What do stakeholders, delivery partners and the public think about the options?

Getting to a decision

Eventually a decision is taken on the most viable solution(s), and how to maximise support for it. Civil servants use things like pilots, guidance, legislation, direct support to a sector, etc. to:
?test different approaches
?increase the spread of impact
?satisfy both short- and long-term needs.

Making it happen

The final stage is making it happen. At this point, the civil servants’ job becomes keeping things on track: monitoring and modifying approaches, working out when and how Government can withdraw, assessing the overall success and impact of the policy, and identifying and sharing lessons learned.

Meghan Rainsberry is the Communications Manager for CLOSER. Many thanks to Neil Dube for his presentation entitled ‘Policymaking and its relationship with evidence and research’ at the CLOSER symposium: Alcohol consumption in adolescence and early adult life: What are the consequences?