Do policymakers care about evidence?

Yes. But do they understand how to use evidence? Not always.

Many policymakers take the job of a public servant not for the money, but to better serve the public. Evidence helps to establish what policies work, and indeed research shows that policymakers demand evidence when making policy decisions, especially if they have relevant training to use it.

However, a new paper shows that it isn't always easy for policymakers to understand how to translate evidence into policy recommendations. In an experiment, high-ranking policymakers in the U.S. government were presented with information about program impact, and their hypothetical assessments of the value of these programs turned out to be strikingly unresponsive to evidence.

This motivated a test of two tools that simplified the communication of evidence. One tool translated the information about program impact into a single metric (cost per person helped annually) and the second compared two programs side-by-side. The tools increased responsiveness to evidence by over 60%.

In addition to the difficulty of communicating and interpreting complex evidence, structural barriers also represent an important barrier to evidence use. One of the issues is capacity. Public servants are overworked and underpaid compared to private sector counterparts, leaving little room for evidence-based innovation. Another issue is organizational inertia, which describes our tendency to keep what is currently in place.

We still have a long way to go in equipping policymakers to make full use of evidence, but effective communication can serve as an important first step.

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