Evidence-based policy

'Evidence-based policy' has become a mantra of many governments that may determine, justify, illuminate or act as smoke screen for projected changes to a specific policy. In economic terms this means that net benefits should be calculated by estimating the expected future returns from a potential change discounted into the present value and compared with estimated costs to those affected: this is sometimes called 'impact analysis'. Its 'shadow' side is 'policy-based evidence', whereby selective facts are offered in support of a predetermined government position. Actual practice probably veers between the two. The increased focus on evidence has been a boon to economic consultancies and to lobbyists. But to many the meaning of 'evidence' remains unclear. Put bluntly: Is it just a rhetorical device? (it's 'evidence' if you like it, 'lobbying' if you don't); Or is 'evidence' a useful social science concept for understanding human behaviour, and evaluating different normative paths?

To base policy on evidence, reasonable as it sounds, is certainly not an uncontested ambition. While it is easy to dismiss 'ideological standpoints, prejudices, or speculative conjecture' (Davies, 2004: 3), it is much harder to conceive of a rational politics that is not utopian or authoritarian. H. G. Wells famously evoked a Samurai class to practice a 'more powerful and efficient method of control than electoral methods can give' (Wells, 1905: ch.9, s.1).

'...evidence used to inform public policy, or intended to inform government, meets the following three criteria: that it be clear, verifiable and able to be peer-reviewed' (quote from IPO, 2011)

In the UK 'evidence-based policy' continues to be a requirement for every department of government and applies also to policy on copyright, which in the past was a policy arena quite immune from cost-benefit analysis. The last few years have seen several independent enquiries set up by the UK Government to provide evidence-based policy recommendations; each had a somewhat different emphasis: Gowers (2006) was to examine all elements of IP with a view to ensuring that it 'provides incentives while minimizing inefficiencies'; Hargreaves (2011) was charged with considering whether the IP system was sufficiently well designed to promote innovation and growth in the UK economy and, following its recommendation to set up a central digital copyright exchange (DCE), Hooper (2012a,b) was asked to consider whether copyright licensing was fit for purpose in the digital age and explore the feasibility of the DCE.

These enquiries invited submissions of evidence from interested parties, commissioned their own research, conducted workshops with stakeholders and lobby groups and met with a range of experts and ordinary citizens in order to gather a broad view. All this information is amalgamated and assessed by the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) in order to make its recommendations to Government.

The Hargreaves report specifically recommended making this process more rigorous. Recommendation 1 reads (2011, p. 8): 'Government should ensure that development of the IP system is driven as far as possible by objective evidence. Policy should balance measurable economic objectives against social goals and potential benefits for rights holders against impacts on consumers and other interests. These concerns will be of particular importance in assessing future claims to extend rights or in determining desirable limits to rights.'

This led to the IPO publishing its own rules of good evidence. The guidelines state the aspiration 'that evidence used to inform public policy, or intended to inform government, meets the following three criteria: that it be clear, verifiable and able to be peer-reviewed' (IPO, 2011). These standards mirror those advocated for academic research and publications. The IPO also invited suggestions on other types of evidence, including individual experience and ideas, explicitly recognising that submitting evidence is time-consuming and costly.