Making public policy has never been easy. And it is getting more difficult. The amount of information to be considered by policy makers can be overwhelming. and ever more complex. Moreover, policy makers are often being pushed to produce ‘early policies’, after being bombarded by unfounded ‘facts’. There is no magic solution to these challenges. What can be done is to ensure that those working in the policy making area have the right skill sets. The OECD and the European Commission took the lead in this area back in 2018. Their report entitled ‘Building Capacity for Evidence Informed Policy Making: Towards a Baseline Skill Set’ can be found on the OECD website: –
Making public policy: The making of public policies has been defined as the process by which governments translate their political visions into programmes and actions to deliver ‘outcomes’. A recent example of policymaking is the Government’s
‘ Climate Action Plan 2023 (CAP23) which – “… sets out a roadmap for taking decisive action to halve our emissions by 2030 and reach net zero no later than 2050, as committed to in the Programme for Government”. https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/7bd8c-climate-action-plan-2023/
Of course, policies are not always about vision; many policies emerge as a response to a public problem or a crisis that requires a solution. These solutions should be produced only after the problem has been defined, the options evaluated, and consultation undertaken. However, policy-makers do not always have sufficient time for all these stages, and decisions often have to be taken ‘on the hoof’’; not always with the best of outcomes.
Policymaking is not a simple process. It is increasingly a complex, dynamic, interactive, and demanding process. It is imperative that policymakers identify what are the skills and competences they need to develop, what institutional procedures need to be put in place and what incentives have to be provided to nurture evidence-informed policy making.
Policy proposals can come from a variety of sources; from Government Programmes, Court decisions, EU decisions, international obligations, think-tanks and from the public. It is a matter then for Governments to make policy decisions. Government ministers are not on their own when it comes to making policy decisions. They have their civil servants and their advisers. And there is no shortage of outside interests who are only too ready to lobby, to give advice and to make their voices heard. There are also formal bodies for providing advice. For instance, the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) has been advising the Taoiseach on strategic issues for Ireland’s economic and social development, for the past fifty years. www.nesc.ie However, regardless of what amount of advice is available, in the final analysis Government must take the policy-decisions, balancing political needs with social good.
Evidence-based Policy Making: There is an increasing need for policy options to be based on rigorous analysis of available evidence. This need is intensified by virtue of the increasing complexities of today’s society, as well as a much greater demand for transparency and accountability in relation to how policy is formulated, delivered and implemented. There has been a discernible shift towards evidence-based policy in recent decades. This can be seen in Public Spending Reviews, greater use of research in the social sciences and policy proofing tools to underpin key policy objectives, e.g. reducing poverty and promoting gender equality. https://pai.ie/is-there-a-need-for-public-spending-reviews/
As circumstances change, evidence for policymaking needs to be updated and re-evaluated. That is where the OECD/European Commission framework comes into focus. The framework argues for a – “collective skill-set for the public service of tomorrow rather than a full list of skills each of the public servants need to master. Development of such skill-set in the public administration will require a continuous professional development framework. This needs to be combined with the proper administrative procedures, institutional set-up and incentives”.
https://www.oecd.org/gov/building-capacity-for-evidence-informed-policymaking.pdf The Framework is summarised in the Box.
Box: Summary of OECD/European Commission Framework for Policy Making
- Understanding evidence informed policy making: This needs to be underpinned by knowledge of different research methods and their purpose, as well as the fundamentals of statistical and data literacy (including big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence).
- Obtaining evidence: Policy makers need to recognise where there are evidence gaps and commission high quality evidence to fill these, using a range of project management techniques.
- Interrogating and assessing evidence: Policy makers need to be able to assess the provenance, reliability, and appropriateness of evidence. They will have an ability to interrogate evidence by critically assessing its quality and context.
- Using and applying evidence in the policy making: Policy makers need to have strong engagement and communication skills, including an ability to create effective evidence-based messages for different types of audiences and to engage and inspire a variety of stakeholders..
- Engaging with stakeholders in evidence informed policy: Policy makers will need to have strong engagement and communication skills, including an ability to create effective evidence based messages for different types of audiences and to engage and inspire a variety of stakeholders.
- Evaluate the success of evidence informed policy making: Policy makers will need to understand different evaluation approaches and tools, know how to use comparative examples to support evidence-informed policy making
Being well-briefed: While the above is a useful framework for policymakers it is not a panacea. There are limitations that need to be mentioned. First, research evidence is only one of many factors that can influence policy processes. Policymaking is inherently political. Governments, as decision-makers, are usually under pressure to respond to short-term needs and to external demands from advisers, other politicians, regulators and pressure groups. Such pressures can result in research being given a low priority. Second, on-going research is providing new evidence all the time. The challenge, for those involved in the public policy process, is how to engage with those who undertake research, provide training and education, and organise seminars and conference.
Ireland is well served by research bodies and organisations. At the heart of Government is the Irish Government Economic and Evaluation Service (IGEES). This is an integrated cross-Government service that was set-up to enhance the role of economics and value for money analysis in public policy making. Established in 2012, the Service demonstrates the strong commitment of the Government to a high and consistent standard of policy evaluation and economic analysis throughout the Irish Civil Service. In that regard, IGEES has an important role to play in the reform and strengthening of the Civil Service and in supporting the Government in progressing major cross-cutting policy challenges such as economic growth, social exclusion, enhance service delivery and better policy design. https://igees.gov.ie/about-us/
Outside Central Government, there is a range of advisory bodies. In addition to the NESC, that has already been mentioned, there are many other bodies in Ireland that are available to provide research and advisory services to help Government make policies. They include the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), the Institute of International and European affairs (IIEA); Institute of Public Administration (IPA); the Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI); Public Affairs Ireland (PAI), and the Think-tank for Action and Social Change (TASC).. Many of these organisations not only help policymakers keep up-to-date with new public policy developments, but also provide commentaries on how public policies are succeeding. In addition to the forgoing, there is a range of consultancy firms that are a ready to help Government to realise its economic and social goals, for a fee.