Thinking outside the box on evidence informed policy making
Professor Fiona Blyth, Sax Institute

Breaking down the divisions between different academic disciplines could lead to valuable new insights into the best ways to enhance evidence informed policy making, researchers suggest in a new paper in Public Health Research & Practice.

Professor Fiona Blyth is a co-author on the paper that urges a multidisciplinary approach
Professor Fiona Blyth is a co-author on the paper that urges a multidisciplinary approach

The concept of evidence informed policy making had been readily embraced across health disciplines, said Professor Fiona Blyth, Sax Institute senior adviser in Knowledge Exchange and Carmen Huckel Schneider, Director of the Master of Health Policy at the Menzies Centre for Health Policy, University of Sydney and an Adviser in the Sax Institute’s Knowledge Exchange division.

But other disciplines, such as the social and political sciences, had also taken up the challenge of increasing the use of evidence in decision making through a range of different approaches.

Why we need to break disciplinary divides

The paper says that challenging the divides between disciplines could give important insights into understanding the complexity of policy making, and where evidence fits in the process.

Looking at approaches developed by different disciplines could also enhance understanding among policy makers themselves, who come from a range of disciplinary backgrounds, and who interact with evidence in different ways, they said.

Four key questions as a “gateway” to other disciplines

In the paper, the researchers explore insights that can be drawn from four different disciplines with very different starting points and methodologies. They outline key questions that provide a gateway to the approaches each of the four disciplines take to evidence informed policy making.

Information processing and behavioural sciences:  This discipline has a central focus on human cognition and relationships, and seeks to understand how and why people make the decisions they do.

As a gateway to understanding this approach, the researchers pose the question: “In what ways might policy makers use evidence in their cognitive and group decision making processes?”

Theories of policy making and the political sciences: This discipline is concerned with evidence about the policy process, looking at how and why certain policies come into being, and the role of institutions, individuals and other organisations or networks in setting agendas and arriving at solutions.

The question posed by the paper is: “How do we understand the way in which policy is being made”

Critical theory and political philosophy: This discipline is focused on who produces evidence, and how the evidence is interpreted and used and provides insights into evidence informed policy making from practical and ethical standpoints.

The “gateway” question put forward is: “What assumptions are being made about the value of evidence informed policy making, and at what point does that value reach its limit?”

Intervention research and implementation science: This discipline looks at the impact of strategies applied in real-world settings to induce some form of change, and is focused on the generation and use of reliable knowledge that can inform what policy approach to take, what programs to implement and how to execute them.

As a gateway to this approach, the paper suggests asking the question: “How can we know what is making a difference?”

The researchers noted that it could be difficult to move from one disciplinary approach to another. However, they said  frameworks for evidence informed policy making that combine insights from various approaches ‒ such as the SPIRIT Action Framework ‒ could provide a way forward for breaking down the barriers.

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