Should public policy be guided by research? Evidently

Opinion: The application of expert insight can be transformative. So why don’t we rely on it more?

Academic researchers play a crucial role in helping society fully understand its past, analyse its present and weigh up its future, but when it comes to policy-making, there is scope to improve the application of research evidence.

The advantages of linking the academic research and policy-making communities appear all too obvious: it promises the delivery of more open government, a more effective use of limited resources and better outcomes for society.

At its best, the application of expert insight can be transformative. It was, after all, a 1962 review of the Irish education system by the Department of Education, in co-operation with the OECD, that led to the report Investment in Education (1966), which was still being trumpeted half a century later as "testament to the power of information and evidence to drive change".

So why don’t we have more of it? The use of research evidence in policy-making in Ireland has only ever been irregular and inconsistent. One explanation for this is that the barriers to change, to the proper implementation of research findings, are many and considerable. Some are even justifiable. Financial constraints, geographic considerations or social values may act as legitimate breaks on the application of new insights.


But it is also clear that lobbying from vested interests and political favouritism present equally serious barriers to good practice. Look no further than the folly of the decentralisation programme of the 2000s. A neat idea, but one anchored to little more than a political whim.

Or what about the ongoing issues around the dispersal of national lottery funds which, as demonstrated by Dr John Considine and his colleagues working in economics at UCC, has been shown to skew disproportionately every few years towards the home constituencies of top office-holders? Hardly a model of rational and informed planning and now, as an RTÉ investigation revealed; it's a practice that extends to the dispersal of discretionary private housing grants.

Talking the talk

Problems of this kind are not particular to Ireland. Societies everywhere grapple with how best to promote evidence-based policy-making in the face of contrary or competing pressures. Everyone at least talks the talk about doing things better. Late last year, the United States saw a rare, if unsuccessful, bipartisan push to create an evidence-based policy commission to examine how best to use data in evaluating the effectiveness of federal programmes and tax expenditures.

Here, nothing as grand as a government commission is likely to be considered, but nor is it necessarily needed. For while it is certainly true to say that more needs to be done, pointing to positives doesn’t require a microscopic lens. Not only is progress being made in this area, it is also easy to spot the potential for a greater application of evidence-based policy-making.

Writing in 2012, Frances Ruane, director of the ESRI, acknowledged that for all the obvious and considerable failings of policy-making during Ireland's boom, significant improvements had been achieved in the country's "data infrastructure", especially in new surveys from the Central Statistics Office, as well as in the build-up of human capacity in, among other places, third-level institutions.


Apart from being more numerous, academic researchers are now also much more attuned to the importance of making their findings more widely accessible, a prerequisite, surely, if their work is to inform public debate and decision-making.

What these developments reveal is a sound statistical and human foundation upon which to build a more coherent and consistent approach to evidence-based policy-making.

At this point, most government departments have some track record of investing in research, although some, such as the Department of Children, clearly see more benefits in the process than others.

In 2013, for instance, this department, in collaboration with the Irish Research Council, supported a study by Dr Helen Buckley of the school of social work and policy at TCD, which examined how 20 years of reports into child protection failings had fed into administrative and political reform.

Buckley, alongside her colleague Dr Caroline O’Nolan, found that while the majority of recommendations were implemented, the impact on “policy and practice” was less obvious.

Such was the effect of “recommendation fatigue” that Buckley and O’Nolan proposed a different approach to the drafting and dissemination of future inquiry recommendations, an approach that would be “forward-looking” and consultative and designed to give policy-makers and service providers a much greater ownership of any recommendations that might emerge. This research, disseminated widely, has had international impact.

If we are to make good on our rhetorical preference for evidence-based policy-making, more of this type of endeavour is needed.

A deeper engagement between the academic research and policy-making communities holds out the prospect of decision-making that is not only more effective, but more appropriately geared to the long-term than the needs of now. In the end, it is about doing things better and avoiding repetition of past mistakes.