Q&A with Mark Evans: “To make evidence effective you have to win the war of ideas”

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Mark Evans is the Director and Professor of Governance at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra, Australia. In this interview with the Knowledge Exchange, Mark talks about how his research is used in policy development.

How can policy makers/practitioners benefit from developing their knowledge and use of evidence?

The more I’ve got involved in the practice of decision making and developing policies, the more I’ve seen the value of evidence. To make evidence effective you have to win the war of ideas. Politicians have their own sources of evidence – internal policy, preferred sources, media etc. – and ministers are enveloped by a whole range of sources. Good evidence has to find a way of being heard and cutting through this.

Civil servants are very skilled in committees and running processes and programmes effectively. They are good at technical solutions and responses, but not adaptive developmental issues, which require time. Their ability to engage and get to the hardest to reach groups within policy, was one of the key findings of our study. How do you cost programmes which take a long time and investment, and target groups experiencing significant marginalisation?

When people talk to you about evidence, research or knowledge, what do they most frequently raise as issues?

Real time evidence – which we can only do through open data. In Australia this is difficult as we don’t have national datasets to enable large scale analysis or comparison. The UK is far ahead of us in terms of data and its use in evidence. In the UK there is no shortage of data, but it needs to be more dynamic, whereas in Australia it’s not sufficient. Resources such as Euromonitor don’t exist in Australia, so we can’t compare or contrast issues or monitor impact. Spatial modelling is very influential due to this lack of data – simulated models for different areas are necessary as we don’t have the real data.

What are the mistakes people make when it comes to developing knowledge, things which you really need to avoid?

Not understanding the political dynamics leads to failure. Not understanding that knowledge is power, and assuming that what makes good evidence is what makes good understanding, are big traps to fall into. Just because you develop good evidence doesn’t mean it will be accepted.

The most important first step is agreement around values and principles. The classic example in Australia would be the original agreement on the child support scheme:  ‘absent fathers should contribute’ was the fundamental principle and getting that agreement led to the introduction of the scheme.

What are the main issues facing policy makers in the next 5 years? What evidence will they need?

This may be peculiar to Australia, but the personalisation of politics and policies, is now impacting. The ‘Obama technologies’ approach of targeting messages to voters and the targeting of resources to particular groups, is on the rise, so policy is becoming individually relevant. If we know what people want, we can then move resources to target their needs. The evidence to help policy makers to do this successfully (i.e. generally the use of new technologies, big data, social media, getting real time data on preferences) is going to grow in importance and be in demand.

Key policy issues are ageing, the cost of care and pensions, funding the social security gaps and climate change. There is also a rise in the development of preventative health and generally the funding of higher education.

How do you think people will be carrying out evidence, research and knowledge development in five years’ time?

Technology, everyone always says technology! Normally there is a lag between the technology and its realisation in public policy – this was certainly the case up until recently.

Largely because there is an association between technology and productivity, there is an inverse relationship between use the use of consultants and productivity. There is only a productivity gain in the public sector in the digitisation of services and the consolidation of the use of technologies.

There is a presumption of localism in policy, but actually technology development is leading to more centralisation. This can be a positive thing for the availability and reliability of data, but negative for understanding very local issues.

If you had a ‘best-kept secret’ about research, evidence and knowledge, what would you recommend, and why?

An approach which is useful in thinking about the context of evidence and policymaking is to ask “I am in my ‘cockpit’ (desk, computer, books, advisors, people I know), but what is in your cockpit?” We’ve found that the more experienced policy officers all had mentors, all had experts, they knew about data, and could do policy relatively quickly. This contrasted with younger policy makers (the ‘Wikipedia policy makers’). Fast-track policy making is being done (ministers deciding and the policy maker sent off to write the evidence base) but if their ‘cockpit’ isn’t complete then the policy making can have holes.

Finally, what led you to a role developing knowledge institutions and focusing on research and evidence development? 

In 1999,  I established the international development unit at York, looking at post-war recovery study. It was just before Afghanistan and Iraq so we became the ‘go to’ place for it, and started to look at the interface between evidence and politics. Many were disregarding the evidence – it’s really all about jobs and poverty; people move towards radicalisation when they have no hope no future.

I came to Australia for the better relationship between government and academia, through the National School of Government.  I have been able to do things in Australia that I wouldn’t have been able to do in UK, bringing together theory and practice. The UK is good at collaboration, and I have taken that to Australia aiming to be the ‘collaborator of first resort’.


You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkEvansACT and you can follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Read some of our other blogs on the use of evidence in public policy:

3 thoughts on “Q&A with Mark Evans: “To make evidence effective you have to win the war of ideas”

  1. Pingback: Why a holistic approach to public health and social care needs a wider evidence base … and how Social Policy and Practice can help | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

  2. Pingback: Implementation science: why using evidence doesn’t guarantee success | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

  3. Pingback: Evidence use in health and social care – introducing Social Policy and Practice | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

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