Gerry Stoker and Mark Evans, Evidence-based Policy Making in the Social Sciences: Methods that matter, Policy Press, 2016, xii + 312 pp, hbk, 0 4473 2936 7, £75, pbk, 0 4473 2937 4, £26.99
This book by Australian and UK social scientists began life at a conference in February 2015: so the first cause of congratulation is that they finished their work so quickly, and that the Policy Press took only six months to publish it. Co-ordinating a multi-author work of this kind is not easy: so the second cause of congratulation is that the book reads as a coherent whole.
The editors’ introduction discusses the rise of the social sciences, and the importance of employing a variety of different methods to inform policy discussion. (It might have been better to treat surveys and cost benefit analysis constructively as elements of the required diversity than to criticise them for some of their practitioners’ overreliance on them. ‘Surveys’ ought at least to have had an index entry.)
In the first part of the book, the editors suggest that barriers to evidence informing policy-making are an inevitable part of the policy process, and that social scientists can help to remove those barriers by understanding the diversity of what the social sciences can offer, by paying attention to the way in which research results are communicated, and by understanding the needs of policy-makers and then choosing the most appropriate research results to offer. The second part of the book is titled ‘Tools for smarter learning’. Chapter 3 finds that systematic reviews of both social science research and the policy process can fulfil a range of purposes and exhibit a range of methods; chapter 4 finds that randomised controlled trials are both more common and more valued than they used to be; chapter 5 describes qualitative comparative analysis ( – a formal method for studying the different outcomes that a policy change achieves in different places); in chapter 6 narrative and storytelling are recognised as important elements of the policy process; and chapter 7 explores the role of visuals in communicating evidence. This second section of the book is perhaps more diverse than the other sections of the book, containing as it does both discussions of social science methods and methods of bridging the gap between research results and the policy process.
The third part of the book is more consistent as it studies a variety of research methods that employ large datasets. Chapter 8 discusses sources of ‘big data’ and some of the ways in which they are analysed; chapter 9 discusses cluster analysis and its policy usefulness; and chapter 10 discusses microsimulation: the use of a computer programme and a large dataset to discover the likely consequences of making a change in either the structure of a social policy or its calibration.
The fourth part of the book studies the ways in which the general public can participate in policy-making and in related research. Chapter 11 outlines different methods of ‘citizen social science’; chapter 12 discusses the ways in which members of the public might be involved in the policy process; and chapter 13 offers examples of ‘co-design’, where a number of stakeholders work together on policy design.
The editors’ concluding chapter revisits the barriers between social science and social policy, and makes suggestions for ameliorating them: a shift in mindset towards seeing evidence and politics as mutually reinforcing; the employment of methods that matter to the policy profession; a more interactive relationship between research and policy formulation; roundtable discussion, innovation intermediaries, and secondments; incentives to engage in applied research; and the involvement of practitioners in social science research.
A discussion of politicians’ deliberate misuse of research results might have been helpful ( – the Citizen’s Income Trust’s research results were abused during a Westminster Hall debate on Universal Basic Income on the 14th September 2016) – a practice that damages both policy-making and the academy: but in general this is a most thorough and most comprehensive treatment of the subject. The chapters are well constructed, and most of them outline both the strengths and the weaknesses of the methods that they discuss.
This is an important book. University-based researchers, think tank staff, and policy makers, should all read it and follow its suggestions.