24 November 2013

An ethnographic study of UK policy making

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Professor Alex Stevens of the University of Kent, did quite an unusual ethnographic study – focused on understanding how UK civil servants use evidence in policy making, and in the process comes to some quite political conclusions:

“Based on participant observation in a team of British policy-making civil servants carried out in 2009, this article examines the use that is made of evidence in making policy. It shows that these civil servants displayed a high level of commitment to the use of evidence. However, their use of evidence was hampered by the huge volume of various kinds of evidence and by the unsuitability of much academic research in answering policy questions. Faced with this deluge of inconclusive information, they used evidence to create persuasive policy stories. These stories were useful both in making acceptable policies and in advancing careers. They often involved the excision of methodological uncertainty and the use of ‘killer charts’ to boost the persuasiveness of the narrative. In telling these stories, social inequality was ‘silently silenced’ in favour of promoting policies which were ‘totemically’ tough. The article concludes that this selective, narrative use of evidence is ideological in that it supports systematically asymmetrical relations of power.”

The seminar blog post by Alex Stevens provides some further insight:

“How do civil servants use evidence in their everyday work as they create policies? That’s what I set out to understand when I was seconded to a Whitehall department for six months. My findings, I should warn, were a bit dispiriting. There is a systematic bias in both the kind and content of evidence that is used. I observed policy-making being distorted by the filtering of evidence to fit the particular goals of the powerful. The result? Policy-making that may be supported in public by evidence but certainly has not been determined by it. […]

Social scientists – perhaps naively – hope that increasing the role of evidence in policy will support democracy because evidence is perceived as being politically neutral. But the people who are making the choices about what evidence will be translated into policy come from the groups in society that already have unequal access to resources, money and power. So the process I have observed of ‘narrative filtering’ of the evidence tends to preserve existing inequalities and power structures rather than challenging them.”

Alex Stevens is Professor in Criminal Justice and Deputy Head of the University of Kent’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research. He has worked on issues of drugs, crime and health in the voluntary sector, as an academic researcher and as an adviser to the UK government.

He presented his research at a special Seminar at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine on Tuesday, 19th Nov 2013.

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