Photo: Dimoari Madulara, Unsplash

Getting evidence and policy to speak the same language

8 January 2018
Author: Dan Jones

Policy making is a process of dialogue. Governments and organisations decide what to do through a series of conversations. The language of these policy conversations is fundamentally different from the language of evidence, so if you want your evidence to influence policy decisions you need to translate it. You need to think like an interpreter and translate your evidence into something that meets the audience's needs.

As the name implies, policy is political, and politics is (among other things) about values and beliefs. The space for what there can be policies about, and what these policies can say, is framed by beliefs about what matters. Evidence has extremely limited impact on these kinds of values and beliefs. In general, we pay attention to evidence which fits with or reinforces our beliefs, rather than letting the evidence influence our beliefs. 

While values may be resistant to change, they can be influenced by personal experience, by peer groups, and by stories. So, in translating your evidence to influence the politics, you need to tell a story. 

Policy making is also an institutional process - one that can be illustrated by the funnel below.

The Policy Funnel (adapted from E3G via Duncan Green oxfamblogs.org/fp2p)

Policy funnel

Ultimately, a policy is a decision – what to do, what not to do, how much to spend – and translating your evidence into policy is about helping people make better decisions.

How to translate your evidence into policy

Issues move through the policy funnel shown above in a process of dialogue. At the open end of the funnel, decisionmakers are dealing with a very broad range of other topics. Where public opinion and political concern is building around an issue, evidence has very little traction – stories are everything, and this is much more the domain of traditional campaigning.  

At the sharp end decisionmakers are managing a great deal of depth in a very constrained timeframe. The role of policy officials – primarily civil servants and government lawyers, but also special advisors in some cases – becomes much more important, as does their relative weight in determining the outcome. And it’s at this level of detail that evidence can have most influence.

In translating your evidence you need to say sharply and compellingly why it matters and what it means. Especially at the sharper end of the funnel, you need to be in the dialogue to influence the outcome. In general, people will not read your report so make the information you are trying to convey as approachable as possible.

To be an effective interpreter, you need to establish trust. This may involve showing that your evidence is credible and legitimate, and sometimes methodology can help with this. While institutional norms around what makes for good evidence may differ, the relationships always matter. You need to invest in developing relationships of trust with people involved in the policy process, being available and responsive to their agendas and learning their language. 

In translating your evidence, you need to show why it matters – how it addresses the specific problem policy makers are considering now. The most important word here is “now” – in translating your evidence, you need to be timely. This means understanding when issues are moving to the sharper end of the funnel or spotting the moment of crisis when an issue suddenly rises up the agenda. Since your evidence will generally come from other places and times, this means remembering what you know, and being clear about what’s transferable to the current context. But above all, it means staying in touch with the policy process through maintaining good relationships and trust with policy makers. 

At the sharper end of the policy funnel, the basic question that policy officials are trying to answer is: “Which of these ideas is the best available option to address this problem here and now?”

If that’s the question, then the stereotypical research answer – “more research needed” - is useless. But so is the stereotypical advocacy answer – “something must be done!”

The policy question is fundamentally about choosing between options. Policy officials very rarely have a blank sheet, or an open-ended question. In translating your evidence, you need to help people make comparisons. This is one reason why Value for Money is such an important tool in policy making – it offers a clear framework for comparing between options.

And finally, rather than single studies synthesis is the most useful evidence product for policy. Show that you have looked at the evidence for different interventions or approaches and weighed them against each other, and explain the contexts in which they are most likely to be effective and why they have or haven’t worked. 

About the author

Centre for Ageing Better

Dan Jones is the director of innovation and change at Centre for Ageing Better.