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Evidence versus politicsExploiting research in UK drug policy making?$

Mark Monaghan

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9781847426970

Published to University Press Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781847426970.001.0001

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Conceptualising and modelling evidence use in politicised policy areas

Conceptualising and modelling evidence use in politicised policy areas

Chapter:
(p.129) Eight Conceptualising and modelling evidence use in politicised policy areas
Source:
Evidence versus politics
Author(s):

Mark Monaghan

Publisher:
Policy Press
DOI:10.1332/policypress/9781847426970.003.0008

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explains evidence utilisation in a politicised area via a model of evidence-based policy making. It starts with the premise that a key tenet of the politicisation is that policies are always in a constant state of flux as new data and personnel assume key positions in the decision-making process. Using the notion of conceptual flux as a starting point, the debate then turns to how this can be modelled. This entails a brief survey of existing models of research utilization. The chapter suggests that for various reasons, these are not suitable for ascertaining the minutiae of the evidence and policy connection in a heavily politicised context. As this is the case, the discussion considers some newer additions to the literature. It introduces a newer processual model as the most suitable means for understanding the complex relationship between evidence and policy formulation.

Keywords:   evidence-based policy, evidence utilisation, conceptual flux, politicised areas, policy formulation

Despite considerable effort at bridging the gap between evidence and policy, rare is the study that leads to direct change in direction.

(Weiss et al, 2008, p 34)

Previous chapters have raised a number of quandaries for the analyst trying to explain the nature of the evidence and policy relationship with particular reference to heavily politicised areas. It has been suggested that particularly in these contexts zero-sum accounts of the evidence and policy relationship are the most frequent default position resorted to by supporters and detractors alike. It was suggested at the end of Chapter Seven that zero-sum views cannot readily account for the subtleties in the evidence and policy connection in politicised areas and, consequently, an alternative view is put forward here. Previous chapters have shown the inherently fluid nature of politicised policy areas and the connection therein between evidence and policy, which is likewise unpredictable and non-linear.

To offer a comprehensive overview of evidence utilisation in politicised policy areas, a number of factors must be accounted for. These can be summarised as follows: (a) the recognition that evidence of some kind is embedded within the policy process, but that (b) the concept of evidence contains vestiges of contestation and certitude. In turn, it requires (c) a model of the policy process that demonstrates how policy (particularly in politicised areas) is inherently dynamic or unstable, which raises the possibility that (d) the connection between evidence and policy is rarely linear where evidence shapes policy outcomes or is used solely in policy analysis, in the form of evaluation for instance.

The quest of this chapter is to synthesise the lessons of the previous chapters. In doing so, it seeks clarification on the nature and role of evidence in the policy process. Initially this involves some brief recourse to philosophical and social scientific discussions of concept formation, looking at the notion of conceptual contestation, certitude and flux. This is because to develop a model of evidence-based policy making one needs to be clear not only about the view of the policy process, but also about the nature of evidence itself. Existing models of research utilisation have been developed over a number of years (see, for example, Weiss, 1986); these have tended to focus on the former, but have neglected the latter. From the discussion of concept formation, and drawing on the findings of previous chapters, it is suggested that the best platform to explain the concept of evidence is to view it in terms of its fluctuating nature. Armed with this understanding of evidence, the debate turns towards established models of research utilisation. These (p.130) are considered as a means of explaining the complex selection or exploitation of research in politicised areas. They are also considered because any new model will inevitably be influenced by the existing literature. For a variety of reasons, it is proposed that these existing models are not up to the task of explaining the minutiae of evidence utilisation in politicised areas. Consequently, more recent additions to the literature are then discussed, which are more fit-for-purpose. The chapter concludes with a summary.

Contestability, certitude and flux in concept formation

The view of evidence emerging from discussions of drug classification is of a concept that is contested, but simultaneously has vestiges of consistency. Applying this to a model of evidence utilisation is the task ahead. The contested and certain nature of concepts poses a challenge for various thinkers, who prefer to see them in one way or another. An outline of these debates is briefly documented here (readers who wish to know more should refer to Pawson, 1989 and Bryant, 1995). Parsonian social theory represents a good example of where concepts are viewed as reflecting the real world and have a consistent meaning (Parsons, 1937). These are referred to as ‘operationalist’ concepts. Here scientific discourse is consistent and understood in the same way by everyone, as are the concepts that are used in explanation. For others (Gallie, 1956; MacIntyre, 1973; Connolly, 1974), this is impractical as different interpretations of concepts are always possible and researchers have little control over how this occurs. In this way, for Gallie (1956), concepts are always ‘essentially contested’. Essentially contested concepts are the epitome of the ‘contestabilist’ tradition of concept formation. Essential contestation equates to more than mere disagreement over the meaning of concepts, but refers also to fundamental disagreement as to their application in science. This is because concepts can never be free of values that seep into science at every available opportunity. The operationalist and contestabilist traditions represent the extreme poles of concept formation in terms of consistency and contestability.

In his discussion of conceptual analysis, Bryant (1995, p 53) concludes that neither stance accurately describes the nature of concepts in research and it is necessary to ‘move beyond’ such accounts. He claims that an acceptance that concepts are both is the path to follow and the task of researchers or scientists is to come to an agreed upon and useable definition. This mirrors the view of evidence advanced here. Bryant’s analysis is, however, rooted in a particular kind of logic. Kilminster (1998) suggests that such reasoning is typical of the philosophy of science. Here, one is forced to choose how one sees particular situations based around long-standing dichotomies, for example whether social phenomena are best explained from the starting point of structure or agency, or whether the social world is an open or closed system. If a choice is not or cannot be made, then it becomes necessary to reconcile these opposing views in some way. Bryant’s strategy for such a reconciliation is that there should be dialogue between rival traditions, which can result in a jointly agreed meaning of concepts emerging. This view (p.131) is consistent with what is often referred to as the ‘reconstructionist’ tradition of concept formation (Oppenheim, 1981; Sartori, 1984), although Bryant is critical of some of the manifestations of this tradition, referring to its adherents as the ‘conceptual thought police’ (Bryant, 1995, p 43).

It is the solution of ‘dialogue’ that is, for current purposes, problematic. As has been illustrated throughout this book, in debates where deeply held views are apparent, there is limited opportunity for the deep core of that view to alter through the process of dialogue and this is, furthermore, likely to be a futile pursuit in terms of fostering change. If agreement on the nature of concepts stemming from productive dialogue between diverging groups is unlikely, then an alternative form of synthesis is required. Salvation comes in the form of ‘formalist’ thinking and with recourse to the sociology of knowledge, particularly that of Elias (1978, 1991, 2000):

Few controversies are as unattractive as that in which two groups of antagonists run around in circles, each defending its own speculative and untestable thesis by attacking another that is equally speculative and untestable on the grounds that no third alternative is possible.

(Elias, 1978, p 73)

Elias’s sociological project can, on one level, be seen as a concerted attempt to move beyond the circular debates described above (Kilminster, 2007). Meanwhile, formalism provides something of a halfway house for the conceptual contestability and certitude debate. Pawson (1989) demonstrates the principle of formalism via an analysis of the concept of social class, which has been operationalised in various different ways with a range of propositions, yet this concept is still widely understood, at the very least, by most social scientists. This is not because some common ground has been established between rival perspectives, but as a result of how it relates to other concepts – income, status, stratification and so on – within a wider system. Pawson (1989, p 237) further suggests that this entails the ‘genuine appraisal of the conceptual structure of sociological theory’. In effect, social theories should not strive to be all-encompassing, but should operate at a middle level of abstraction (Merton, 1957), and take their meanings from other theories operating in other spheres, as should the concepts that are central to them.

Taking the concept of evidence, then, any argument made with recourse to this, on some level, shows signs that it has been thought about in relation to other phenomena. A formalist-led view of evidence would therefore view the concept as internally diverse, but as having a simultaneously consistent level of application in wider discourse. The previous chapters have identified the miscellany of evidence, linking this to wider beliefs about preferable directions for policy. Writing in the context of health policy, Culyer and Lomas (2006, p 360) highlight its internal diversity of evidence, suggesting that:

(p.132) Clinical or programme effectiveness data compare with assertion (sometimes claimed to be expert assertion), cost-utility algorithms sit alongside political acceptability and public or patient attitude data are combined with vivid recollections of personal encounters. What Ministers call evidence is what they get from their constituents at Saturday surgery.

(Culyer and Lomas, 2006, p 360)

They also suggest, however, that on a higher level of abstraction, ‘evidence is anything that claims to be an empirical fact’ (Culyer and Lomas, 2006, p 360). Locating a meaning of the term in jurisprudence, they claim that ‘evidence is to do with the facts of a case’, before continuing that ‘the kind of evidence that is relevant in any situation consists of material facts that help establish the truth of someone’s assertions or the cause of a consequence’ (Culyer and Lomas, 2006, p 360). On this level, it is broadly understood by those who comment on, or attempt to formulate, evidence-based policy. Culyer and Lomas are at pains to point out, however, that because of its retrospective nature, the jurisprudential meaning of evidence is unsuitable in the context of evidence-based policy, whereas health evidence is concerned with ‘forecasting, prediction and prognosis’ (Culyer and Lomas, 2006, p 360). A case can be made, however, that evidence in policy is linked to that in the legal process. Jurisprudential evidence need not always be retrospective. There is always the possibility for ‘new’ evidence to come to light in criminal trials, for example, which can lead to the re-opening of criminal investigations.

This leads on to another key point about the nature of evidence. Transposed into the current debate, we can say that the concept of evidence in evidence-based policy making (particularly in politicised areas), like that in jurisprudence, should not be viewed as a motionless entity. This is primarily because the contexts in which it is applied are dynamic. The influence of politics on policy can be drawn on to explain this. Indeed, the dynamic nature of policy subsystems can be illustrated by the fluctuating nature of cannabis legislation in the UK that has been subservient to the political winds of change, to-ing and fro-ing between classes B and C. As regards the fluctuating nature of evidence, the association between cannabis use and mental illness, along with the debates over cannabis potency, reveal how this is an inherently dynamic area. The media and public interest in the topic also mean that there is a market for research to be continuously conducted. It is worth pointing out that for this very reason the ACMD (2008) recommended that the evidence base for cannabis classification be placed under permanent review.

In effect, the concept of evidence and the context to which it is applied must be seen to be in flux. It is suggested here that it is possible for concepts to show signs of both contest and certitude, precisely because of this. Again, this line of thinking has similarities with that of Elias. One of Elias’s main concerns was that at his time of writing, the means of speaking and thinking available to sociologists, for the most part, were unequal to the task asked of them. A by-product of the lexicon of (p.133) the social sciences, for Elias, was that numerous technical terms seemingly relate to independent static artefacts. On closer scrutiny, however, the phenomena under consideration were dynamic. Drawing on Whorf’s (1956) philosophy of language, he develops this point by referring to the nature of wind:

We say, “The wind is blowing”, as if the wind were actually a thing at rest which, at a given point in time, begins to move and blow. We speak as if the wind were separate from its blowing, as if a wind could exist which did not blow.

(Elias, 1978, p 112)

Elias then pointed out how the same was true for the concept of ‘society’ and other related sociological concepts:

The very concept of society has this character of an isolated object, in a state of rest, and so has that of nature. The same goes for the concept of individual. Consequently, we always feel compelled to make quite senseless conceptual distinctions, like ‘the individual and society’, which makes it seem that ‘the individual’ and ‘society’ were two separate things, like tables and chairs, or pots and pans. One can find oneself caught up in long discussions of the nature of the relationship between these two apparently separate objects. Yet on another level of awareness one may know perfectly well that societies are composed of individuals, and that individuals can only possess specifically human characteristics such as their abilities to speak, think, and love, in and through their relationships with other people – ‘in society’.

(Elias, 1978, p 113)

This is a useful premise on how evidence should be viewed for policy. It is difficult to think of evidence without it being linked to the nature of the policy area to which it relates. Formalist reasoning accounts for this nuance. A modified formalist account of conceptual explanation is, therefore, advocated here. There are, then, traces of both certitude and contestability in the concept of evidence. Taking this as the starting point and recognising that contestability and certitude are apparent can be a good platform for developing a model to explain the role of evidence in politicised areas.

Modelling the evidence and policy connection

Drawing on the work of Weiss (1998), Nutley et al (2003) demarcate four main ‘types’ of research utilisation from ‘models’ of research utilisation. These are:

  • instrumental use, where research feeds directly into decision making for policy and practice;

  • conceptual use, where even if practitioners are blocked from using findings, research can change their understanding of a situation, provide new ways of (p.134) thinking and offer new evaluative insights into particular courses of action. In this way conceptual use can become instrumental;

  • mobilisation of support, where research becomes an instrument of persuasion or the act of research is a tool to legitimate particular courses of action or inaction;

  • wider influence, where research can have an influence beyond the institutions studied.

There is significant overlap between the ‘types’ and ‘models’ of research utilisation, as will become apparent. The latter are favoured here on account of their prevalence in the wider literature.

According to Harré and Secord (1972, p 72), ‘the key to understanding of the epistemological and logic of creative science is to be found in the logic of the model’. Stevens (2007a), by drawing on the work of Weiss (1986), among others, has produced a four-tier typology of models of the evidence-based policy-making process. He suggests that the evidence and policy relationship can be divided into the following: the ‘linear model’, the ‘enlightenment model’, the ‘political/tactical model’ and finally, the ‘evolutionary model’, for which he claims superiority. Although not mentioned by Stevens (2007a), Weiss (1986) also refers to an ‘interactive model’ and the model of ‘research as part of the intellectual enterprise of society’ as plausible accounts of the research and policy connection. All are expounded below, with the exception of the evolutionary model, which is reserved for a subsequent discussion. Bryant (1995), in his review of this area of the literature, covers much the same ground, but uses a slightly different lexicon. Of prime significance, for current purposes, is his reference to a ‘dialogical model’. It is worth pointing out that although the models are discrete, the many features that make them up overlap with other models.

With the exception of Stevens’ (2007a) evolutionary model, these constitute the established models of research utilisation. It must be stressed that although there are differences between ‘research’ and ‘evidence’, in what follows the terms are used interchangeably. In the context of highly politicised policy areas, all the established models have their relative strengths and weaknesses. The models are judged as to their effectiveness based on a range of criteria discussed over the course of previous chapters. It is maintained that in order to develop a useful model of evidence utilisation in politicised policy areas, an understanding of evidence-based policy making that accounts for the use of evidence in both the analysis of policy (outcomes) and the development of policy (process) is necessary. In addition, a view of the concept of evidence is required that can account for both certitude and contestability. This is because evidence is always in a state of flux. A dynamic view of the link between evidence and policy is another prerequisite. This allows for the fact that the link between the two is rarely linear or short term, but is much more ad hoc and usually takes place over a prolonged time frame. The next criterion is that a view of the decision-making process is required where evidence is only one spoke in the wheel of decision making, fighting for influence alongside things such as polling and punditry, for instance. (p.135) Finally, any model must incorporate a sophisticated account of the mechanisms by which evidence comes to play a role in decision making.

In recent times, multi-criteria decision making or a variant thereof has been employed to adjudge between various evidence bases in various policy domains including, for instance, in the disposal of nuclear waste (see, for example, Morton et al, 2009). Multi-criteria decision making attempts to allow policy makers to adjudicate between rival interpretations of data on the same problem by establishing a set of criteria which must be met. The focus of evidence selection here, is similar; however, the focus is more on what Bulmer (1986, p 10) terms the ‘content of the negotiations’ of research use – these are the means by which research is selected for use in policy or practice. In effect, it is the interplay between structure and agency in the decision-making process and how evidence flourishes or flounders under the conditions of heavy politicisation that is of prime concern. For the sake of clarity, the key criteria for a useable model of evidence are produced in table form alongside a brief description of the key tenets of each, as Table 8.1 illustrates. The top five rows relate to various issues of the research and policy relationship discussed in previous chapters, and in the pending discussion of the models. The final row emerges out of the pending discussion of the existing models of research utilisation.

Table 8.1: Key issues for models of research utilisation in heavily politicised policy areas

Issue

Description

Outcome

A view of evidence that is equated to policy outcomes (analysis of policy), primarily in the form of policy evaluation

Process

A view of evidence that sees its role in the process of policy decision making (analysis for policy) in policy formulation

Nuanced account of the nature of evidence

A view of evidence that is diverse and encompasses a range of possible manifestations of what it is and/or should be, but also accepts that despite its contestation it has vestiges of certitude

Dynamic view of policy making

A view of the policy process that assumes an indirect or arbitrary link between evidence and policy. This is often accompanied by a long-term view of the relationship between evidence and policy, where policy making is ad hoc and complex

Evidence central to policy

A view of the relationship between evidence and policy that sees a deterministic relationship between evidence and policy where evidence is the key driver of policy. This factors out or downplays other key influences such as the role of politics and the media

Explanation of evidence selection

A view of the relationship between evidence and policy that gives a detailed account of how evidence is utilised in policy making including how it is selected

(p.136) Linear model

Also referred to as the ‘rational model’ or ‘purist model’, as the name suggests, the linear model portrays a direct link between evidence production and policy decision making. It can be read as an amalgamation of what Weiss (1986) terms the ‘knowledge-driven model’ and the ‘problem-solving model’ of research utilisation. For Weiss, the knowledge-driven model is derived from the natural and/or physical sciences and assumes a linear application of research findings to policy making. This occurs along the lines of the following sequence (see Weiss, 1986, pp 31–2):

basic research → applied research → development → application

In this formulation, basic research highlights an opportunity, applied research is then conducted to define and test these findings, appropriate technologies are then developed, and finally, application occurs. This model is premised on the assumption that because knowledge exists, it will subsequently come to be used in policy making.

Also premised on a linear sequence of the research–policy relationship, the problem-solving model suggests that research is used to fill gaps in knowledge where problems have arisen. This research can be of any variety. This process takes the following sequence (see Weiss, 1986, p 32):

definition of pending decision → identification of missing knowledge → acquisition of social science research → interpretation of the research for the decision context → policy choice

In this model there are two main ways in which research enters the domain of the policy maker: first, the research antedates the policy problem and can then be drawn on if required, a notion not dissimilar from Kingdon’s (1984) ‘primeval soup’. In this respect, policy makers or their associates may go and search for, happen upon or be familiar with, prior existing research from a variety of different sources that can be tapped into. Second, there is also the notion that research may be specially commissioned to fill the knowledge gap. This is based on the assumption that ‘decision makers have a clear idea of their goals and a map of acceptable alternatives and that they have identified some specific informational needs to clarify their choice’ (Weiss, 1986, p 32). In this scenario, social scientists are purposively contacted to fill the knowledge gap and it is perceived that research directly influences policy choices and decisions by providing evidence, information and knowledge that help to solve and illuminate a particular policy problem.

The most common manifestation of this model lies in evidence-based medicine. The Cochrane Collaboration is premised on this, as is the social science equivalent, the Campbell Collaboration, with its experimental approach to social inquiry. For Stevens (2007a), underpinning this model is an ‘instrumentally rational’ approach (p.137) for choosing the means to arrive at pre-determined ends, a point also recognised by Richardson and Jordan (1979, p 19), who suggest that its potential influence stems from the way it points to a clear direction in which research can shape policy. As a result, the linear model has enjoyed significant longevity. According to Lindblom, the linear model represents the ‘typical’ understanding of the relationship between research and policy. This stems from the fact that there is a general view that to make policies more effective, it is necessary to bring ‘more information, thought and analysis into the policy-making process’ (Lindblom, 1980, p 11).

This is, however, a static view of the evidence and policy relationship. It is questionable as to the extent that the policy-making process is characterised by rational decisions made on the basis of the best information (Young et al, 2002, p 18), or whether this is possible or desirable. A related point is that this model factors out issues concerning the ‘fuzzy’ production of data in scientific research. As illustrated in previous chapters, there are prominent schools of thought that show that social research is inevitably contested (Gallie, 1956; MacIntyre, 1973; Connolly, 1974), or part-contested (Pawson, 1989; Bryant, 1995), and there are inevitable discrepancies between the evidence producers and the requirements of the policy makers (Caplan, 1979). In effect, the knowledge produced by science ‘does not readily lend itself to conversion into replicable technologies, either material or social’ (Weiss, 1986, p 32). It is also important to remember that evidence often stems from the diverse interests of those responsible for its creation and carries with it ideological baggage.

This notion of diverse interests, then, is in direct contrast to the one-size-fits-all approach of the linear model’s assumptions on the nature of evidence. There is, in politicised areas, conflict between groups with competing interests, which impacts on the nature of evidence production. For evidence to be utilised in decision making, it must be perceived to be useable by those in positions of power. In this sense, it helps if it is consistent with their view of the policy in question (Monaghan, 2010). There is no account in this model of these issues or other factors explaining policy formulation such as political or media imperatives. Within this model an assumption is also made that both researchers and policy makers will share a common outlook on the relationship between research and policy, and that if they do, they will agree on the research findings, which is not always the case. As a result, the insights gained from this research suggest that evidence utilisation involves issues of power, a point that is neglected in the linear account. For these reasons and notwithstanding debates concerning the inadequacies in the links between the research and policy communities (see also Chapter Three), there are various barriers to a linear version of evidence utilisation. In effect, the connection between evidence and policy is not deterministic and there is a significant element of luck involved in having relevant social research on hand for use in policy making; it cannot be viewed as a consistently linear process and other means of explaining the connection are required.

(p.138) Enlightenment model

For its supporters (Janowitz, 1972; Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith, 1993b; Young et al, 2002; Pawson, 2006a), the enlightenment model represents a more urbane explanation of the evidence and policy relationship. Given one of its first expressions in the work of Weiss (1977), it refers to the arbitrary way research can enter the policy arena. Weiss and Bucuvalas (1980) suggest that this is the model that most closely typifies the relationship between research and policy formulation. Duke (2003, p 17) claims that the relationship between research and policy, in this model, is characterised by the process of ‘indirect diffusion’. Thus, it offers a more dynamic perspective of the research and policy relationship. In this scenario, social science research ‘percolates’ into the ‘informed public’s consciousness’ and comes to shape the way the public sees the world.

In effect, in the enlightenment model research supplies the conceptual tools to policy makers to aid their decision making. It is important to stress that within this model, single pieces, or even an entire body of research or evidence, rarely, if ever, have a direct impact on policy. Instead, the process of cumulating research and information over time serves to sensitise policy makers to new issues. In this way research influences the way policies are defined and framed and can thus help to reshape the policy agenda. It also highlights how research can be conceived as part of the process of policy making, as opposed to just helping shape the outcomes, as in the linear approach. For Weiss, enlightenment is a two-way process. On the one hand, it raises the awareness of decision makers to issues. This can help set the agenda and construct certain problems as requiring solutions. In this regard, as Banting (1986, p 42) has pointed out, the vast outputs of Richard Titmuss, among others, while documenting the failures of the welfare state, also helped to establish poverty and inequality as key policy issues in the 1960s. On the other hand, research can turn what were once potentially pressing problems into lesser policy issues and can change the boundaries over where solutions are sought.

Although the enlightenment model offers a most promising opportunity for research evidence to influence the policy agenda, critics highlight various problems, which ultimately mean that the enlightenment model is characterised by its explanatory under-ambition. First, the notion of the ‘indirect diffusion’ of evidence that typifies the enlightenment model can lead to ‘distortion’ and ‘over-simplification’. The end result can be that policies become ‘endarkened’ (Weiss, 1986, p 39), as research clouds the issue as opposed to providing guidance on it. Second, it can take a long time for research to reach its intended audience in the policy domain, which can serve to detract from its utility and relevance. In this sense, research can easily be neglected and this can be a wasteful process. Third, and related to the point of endarkenment, as issues become more widely researched, there is an increasing chance that policy solutions become more contested and the process of research utilisation becomes more intricate. This is magnified with more social research, but is applicable to all of the sciences. Research findings do not always converge on a point that could be used as a barometer to guide (p.139) policy; debates over the potency of contemporary cannabis and its links with mental illness documented in Chapter Six are indicative of this. Fourth, there is also little consideration of the fact that evidence is often not the only factor in policy decision making. For Stevens (2007a), a related and final shortcoming of this model revolves around the notion that there is no filtration process by which inadequate or invalid research is siphoned out of the process. Consequently, there is an assumption that all kinds of research, regardless of theoretical standpoint and methodological preference, have an equal chance of influencing the policy agenda. The ability to shape or affect the agenda, as we have seen, is not an equal playing field (Stevens, 2007a; Monaghan, 2010).

Political/tactical model

The political/tactical model is characterised by the selective use of evidence to satisfy the ‘short-term’ interests of policy makers. For Weiss (1986), the political model can be distinguished from the tactical version. In the ‘political model’ various interests and ideologies coalesce to pre-determine the position of policy makers on particular issues or problems. It is claimed that new research is unlikely to have a bearing on these positions and, instead, has a legitimising or justificatory function for a particular policy decision. Duke (2003, p 17) illustrates how often research that confirms existing arguments is used by advocates as ‘ammunition’, to attempt to neutralise opponents and persuade those who doubt the wisdom behind certain decisions. This is achieved even if the research is taken out of context.

In the ‘tactical model’ the findings of research are less significant than the actual process of undertaking research. Policy makers are able to procrastinate on policy formulation by stating that they are awaiting the results of ongoing research activity. Oral evidence from the Science and Technology Select Committee (2006b), between the chair, Phil Willis MP, and Vernon Coaker MP, the drugs minister at the time, illustrates this:

Q1205 Chairman:

  • In January [2006] the then Home Secretary Charles Clarke announced that a consultation paper on the ABC classification system would be published within a few weeks. There was obviously a concern about it at that time. Why has it not happened?
  • Mr Coaker:

  • Two things. First of all, the Home Secretary [John Reid] – in post for four weeks – has not yet taken a decision on how to proceed with the review of the classification system. With respect to the consultation document which is in draft form in the department, the view is that we will need to wait until such time as we decide how to proceed with respect to the review of the classification system and also, similarly, wait for the report of this Committee, which we want to take into account in determining the best way forward. (Science and Technology Select Committee, 2006b, Evidence 43)
  • (p.140) In the tactical model, research findings are also used strategically. Weiss (1986, p 37) has suggested that social researchers and the research they produce can ‘deflect criticism’ away from the government in relation to policies that have proved unsuccessful and unpopular. Tizard (1990) likewise claims that, as a result, many research reports remain unread and are left collecting dust on the shelves of government departments.

    The political/tactical model, in contrast to the linear and enlightenment versions, does start to descend the ladder of abstraction to consider the ways in which evidence is (or is not) selected in policy decision making. There is also some recognition that political imperatives, along with evidence, are central to the policy-making process and that evidence is not the only driver of policy formulation. The logic underpinning this position is, however, ultimately linear (especially in the political version). It also offers a static, short-term view of the policy-making process, factoring out the potentially unintentional or serendipitous ways evidence can come to be used in policy making. It also suggests that if evidence survives political manipulation, it will be used in decision making, but as we have seen with the sacking of David Nutt, this is not always so. In short, it offers a restrictively narrow vista of the research and policy connection, as if it was somehow deterministic and thus neglecting the unstable nature of policy development. There is, then, little consideration of issues pertaining to the often contested nature of evidence and how evidence may still not be used despite having powerful sponsors in policy debates. Of all the established models, Stevens (2007a) is most supportive of the political/tactical variety and sees an affinity between this and his evolutionary version, as we shall see.

    Interactive model

    On one level, the interactive model is consistent with pluralist models of policy analysis. Here, information is sought not only from (social) scientists, but also from a range of actors in the policy process. As a result, research is not the only factor influencing the decision-making process. There is also a non-linear relationship from research to policy decision. Instead, the process, according to Weiss (1986, p 35), consists of a ‘disorderly set of inter-connections and back-and-forthness that defies neat diagrams’. Social scientists are just one group of a multitude of actors who can have an impact on policy. This is highly unlikely to happen as a result of some of their research impacting directly; it is more the case that researchers and policy makers engage in ‘mutual consultations’ that eventually move towards a policy response to a potential problem.

    The interactive model offers, then, a dynamic and long-term understanding of the evidence and policy relationship. Weiss (1986, pp 35–6) draws on Donnison’s (1972, p 527) experience of the legislation formulation process, to illustrate how policy makers cannot always rely on the findings of research when considering certain policy responses:

    (p.141) Research workers could not present authoritative findings for others to apply; neither could others commission them to find the ‘correct’ solution to policy problems: they were not that kind of problem. Those in the four fields from which experience had to be brought to bear [politics, technology, practice and research] contributed on equal terms. Each was an expert in a few things, ignorant about most things, offered what he [sic] could, and generally learnt more than he [sic] could teach.

    To reiterate, in this account research or evidence is just one element of a more complex process. Researchers can play an important role in promoting and acting as partisans for their research. In this sense, their role is similar to that of knowledge brokers, but there are, however, clear barriers to research directly entering policy, ignorance being one of them, according to Donnison. There are omissions from the interactive model, however. For instance, no information is forthcoming about the propensity of decision makers to favour certain kinds of information over others in terms of reliability or expediency. Also, little is said about the nature of evidence and how this may contribute to its lack of efficacy. Nor is any information forthcoming about the kinds of research evidence that could be used and how they are selected.

    Research as part of the intellectual enterprise of society

    In a similar vein to the interactive model, the notion of research as part of the intellectual enterprise of society suggests that it is one of many ‘intellectual pursuits’ in society. Unlike in the other models, here the relationship between research and policy is not considered in causal terms. Unlike all the other models, in this scenario research is another ‘dependent variable running side by side with policy and philosophy, journalism, history, law and criticism etc’ (Weiss, 1986, p 39). Weiss (1986, p 39) suggests that in such cases ‘social science and policy interact, influencing each other and being influenced by the larger fashions in social thought’. In both the interactionist model and here, there is little concern with the vagaries of evidence in terms of contestability or certitude. The view of the policy process is one of long-term trends and is, therefore, dynamic. There are, however, no appreciations of the mechanisms of selection concerning what research plays a part in policy discussions.

    Dialogical model

    In addition to the models identified by Weiss (1986), Bryant (1995) highlights a dialogical model of the research and policy relationship. For Bryant (1995, p 142), this is a departure from all the previous ones, which, he suggests, are ‘unambiguously empiricist’. The general premise for this assertion is that little attention is given to the fact that research can be contested and, therefore, is not (p.142) always useable for policy makers. In addition, instead of offering a description of the relationship between research or evidence and policy, it is very much a rallying cry for how the connection can be consolidated.

    Drawing on the various works of Giddens (1982, 1984, 1987), the dialogical model, then, offers a ‘post-empiricist’ view of social science and research. It is keen to stress the limitations of scientifically produced knowledge from research via recourse to the ‘double hermeneutic’. In effect, for Bryant, concepts and therefore knowledge are inherently contested and meaning emerges from negotiation and dialogue between relevant constituents. Key to the dialogical model, then, is Giddens’ (1987, p 47) view that research will most effectively inform policy through ‘an extended process of communication between researcher, policy makers and those affected by whatever issues are under consideration’. There is also a re-framing of the temporal framework of research and policy as research helps to highlight ‘where the most urgent practical questions cluster’ and offers ‘frameworks for seeking to cope with them’ (Giddens, 1987, p 47). In terms of its view of the policy-making process, this is not dissimilar to the notion of research as part of the intellectual enterprise of society, the interactive model and the enlightenment model. This premise sets the dialogical model apart from what Bryant refers to as the ‘control’ model of applied sociology, for which we can read linear model.

    For Bryant (1995, p 147), there are three central assumptions of the dialogical model. First, social research cannot just be ‘applied’ to an independently given subject matter. Instead, it has to be aimed at persuading actors to expand or modify the forms of knowledge or belief that they draw on in organising their action. This should include ‘direct consultation of a prolonged kind where feasible’ (Bryant, 1995, p 147). Second, there is the ‘mediation of cultural settings’. This involves the ‘communication, via social research, of what it is like in one cultural setting to those in another’ (Bryant, 1995, p 147). This requires conceptual innovation or ‘reconstruction’ because the desire to make positive changes involves positing ‘possible worlds’ of what might become, via programmes of social reforms. For Giddens (1987, p 48), novel conceptual frameworks open up possible fields of action previously unperceived either by policy makers or by the agents involved. Third, there are the practical issues of the double hermeneutic. Again reminiscent of the enlightenment model, these mean that social research produces:

    …not sets of generalisations which facilitate instrumental control over the social world but, rather, the constant absorption of concepts and theories into that ‘subject matter’ they seek to analyse, constituting and reconstituting what the subject matter is.

    (Giddens, 1987, p 48)

    Ultimately, this model casts doubt on evidence being able to inform policy unless there is a commitment to dialogue between policy makers, researchers and the wider community. The dialogical model therefore offers a dynamic view of the policy process, showing how the connection between evidence and policy is complex, but properly reconstructed evidence plays a role in the process of policy (p.143) formulation. Little is mentioned about the use of evidence in the evaluation of policy. The dialogical model is more concerned with evidence in the process of decision making. A key strength, however, is the way it descends the ladder of abstraction to show how agency is a key aspect of policy deliberations. This is not immediately obvious in many of the previous models, most obviously the linear version. Little account is given, however, of the likely outcomes of consultations between the evidence producers and key policy stakeholders, only that they are necessary. A repeated theme throughout this book has been that in heavily politicised areas, dialogue between rival perspectives is rarely a guarantee of influencing agendas. It is difficult to have fruitful dialogue over issues such as required policy directions in heavily controversial areas, because deeply held views are rigid. Often, the best that can be hoped for is consensus over the less stringently held views, changes to which do not significantly alter the overall direction of policy (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith, 1993b). Although to date this was the least abstract of models of research utilisation, caution is urged about how successful this strategy will be in overcoming the various challenges of influencing the policy process and how accurate it can be as an explanation of the connection between evidence and policy.

    An overview of the established models of research utilisation

    Based on the findings of this and previous chapters, and as Table 8.1 surmised, in explaining the role and nature of evidence in a heavily politicised policy area a sophisticated model is required that moves beyond simple zero-sum appreciations of the evidence and policy connection. Table 8.2 offers an overview of each model in relation to the criteria established at the outset of the chapter. It serves as a summary of the relative merits and weaknesses of all the established models of research utilisation.

    Table 8.2: An overview of the applicability of existing models of research utilisation in politicised policy areas

    Model/criteria

    Outcome

    Process

    Nuanced account of the nature of evidence

    Dynamic view of policy making

    Evidence central to policy

    Explanation of evidence selection

    Linear

    X

    X

    X

    X

    Enlightenment

    X

    X

    X

    Political/tactical

    X

    X

    X

    X

    Interactive

    X

    X

    X

    X

    Intellectual enterprise

    X

    X

    X

    X

    Dialogical

    X

    X

    (p.144) Of all the established models, none possesses all the required criteria for explaining the complexity and nuance of evidence utilisation in politicised policy areas. First and foremost, this is because none recognises that evidence utilisation can occur in both the development and in the analysis of policy. Only the dialogical variety and the political/tactical model begin to descend the ladder of abstraction to explain how evidence is selected rather than what the connection is. Although it would be fair to say that the dialogical model pays more attention to the problems associated with the nature of research (which can be transferred to the nature of evidence), the discussion is skewed by its insistence on focusing on its inherently contested nature. In a bid to develop a more comprehensive model, the discussion now turns to two newer additions to the literature that have recently been developed; the evolutionary model and the processual model. These offer alternative explanations of the evidence and policy relationship. The first is a recent addition to the existing literature and the second is an original contribution based on the shortcomings of other models.

    Evolutionary model

    Unlike the previous models, the evolutionary model was conceived specifically as a model of evidence-based policy rather than as a model of research utilisation. The focus of this model is to uncover the bias that occurs in evidence use in policy. The analysis commences with evidence being equated to ideas. These may be ‘facts, findings or recommendations that have been produced by academics, journalists, think tanks, pressure groups or others’ (Stevens, 2007a, p 28). By focusing the analysis at the level of ideas, a broader appreciation of evidence can be ascertained. This does not extend to an in-depth synopsis of the concept in terms of concern over the often contested nature of evidence, but it does illustrate how evidence can be more than the product of research. It can also be suggested that the model is premised on a pluralist view of the policy process that considers how various constituencies are embroiled in the process. Furthermore, it accepts that evidence of some kind is embedded therein. In addition, this model does not rely on a deterministic explanation that equates the phenomenon with the deliberate manipulation of evidence by policy makers.

    Whereas most of the established models remain unconcerned with the ‘content of the negotiations’ of research use, this is precisely the concern of the evolutionary model. In short, influenced by the ideas of John (1999), according to Stevens (2007a), it is able to explain the pattern of selection of evidence used in policy making by descending the ladder of abstraction to look at how evidence selection is premised on Darwinian, ‘classic’ evolutionary social theory and the notion of ‘survival of the fittest’ (Spencer, 1891):

    Some of these ideas fit the interests of powerful groups and some do not. Ideas that do fit will find powerful supporters. Others will not. Those ideas that fit will therefore have groups and individuals that (p.145) can carry them into policy, as would a gene be reproduced if it finds a place in organisms that survive. The ideas that do not fit will tend not to be picked up by people who have the power to translate them into policy. This evolutionary advantage leads to the survival of the ideas that fit.

    (Stevens, 2007a, p 28)

    The evolutionary model is also premised on Giddens’ (1984) theory of structuration. There is a reciprocal relationship between the idea and the carrier (the powerful supporter). The idea exists within certain structural conditions that are partly created by the agents. The conditions under which an idea either flourishes or flounders are shaped in terms of what Stevens (2007a) calls the ‘mechanisms of selection’. These are similar to ideas expressed in the political/ tactical model of research utilisation but are ultimately more advanced and detailed. Stevens (2007a) identifies four main ones which can be illustrated with recourse to recent debates in UK drug policy.

    The first mechanism focuses on how policy makers or other powerful groups may ‘fish’ or ‘trawl’ for evidence. Here, they haul in the bits they require and throw back those not needed. A common tactic employed in this regard is the use of ‘repetition’. Powerful actors are able to focus the attention of potential critics towards evidence that supports a said policy, even if the evidence has been taken out of context (Weiss, 1986). In doing so, this evidence becomes a key part of the knowledge base, justifying the ‘validity’ of the policy to which it equates. This can be seen in the frequent proclamations that in drug policy ‘treatment works’, even though the evidence for this is often conflicting (Bean and Nemitz, 2004), and there is little uniformity surrounding the concept of treatment.

    In a somewhat similar vein, the second mechanism suggests that powerful groups can ‘farm’ for or cherry-pick evidence. Here, research is specifically commissioned to provide evidence for the proposed policy, although only that which actually supports the policy is published. The drug debate is awash with examples of where this has happened. In 2003, the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit produced a report detailing the (lack of) progress of the current drug strategy. Chaired by Sir John Birt, the report amounted to a damning failure of the current approach, and was consequently not published. The detail of the report became public knowledge when it was leaked to The Guardian. Farming and trawling are not far removed from the linear model’s description of evidence selection.

    The tactic of creating ‘flak’ is the third mechanism. Here, a significant amount of disquiet is created over evidence that enters the public arena that is detrimental to the chosen or established policy direction. The media play a powerful role in this regard. Specific kinds of ‘journalistic philosophy’ have a regulatory effect when it comes to policy through the reportage of selected information about certain policies (Prideaux, 2004, p 18; see also Chibnall, 2004). Thus, if a policy suggestion departs from or conflicts with the stance advocated by the editorial board of a newspaper, then the media have the power to undermine the stance, perhaps via ridicule. The reception of evidence relating to the abandonment (p.146) of the prohibition of legal drugs and that advocating more rigorous drug law enforcement have, typically, been the victim of flak. This is on the grounds that they are perceived as being contrary to the principles of evidence-based policy making, as these stances have never been fully trialled in the UK. Consequently, a degree of speculation surrounds whether they would be successful in dealing with the drug problem in the UK in terms of reducing the harm associated with drugs (Monaghan, 2010).

    Imposing ‘strain’ on organisations or individuals who produce and advocate ‘unhelpful’ evidence to those in power is the final mechanism. This can be illustrated by the way that funding is allocated for the drug policy sector. This is worthy of elaboration. As Chapters Five to Seven have illustrated, groups and agents making up the rational perspective were more likely to be the recipients of central funding, being in a structurally and favourable position in the debate, and sharing a similar outlook on the nature of the problem to that of the government. To rephrase, the rational perspective’s appreciation of evidence is consistent with the government’s picture, hence its barriers to central funding are greatly reduced, evidenced by the way that DrugScope, a leading group in the rational perspective, receives some of its funding from central government (DrugScope, no date).

    Ultimately, these mechanisms relate to the way that power is a central feature of evidence-based policy making. As Stevens (2007a, p 29) comments, the ‘groups with the most power in society will be most able to implement these mechanisms’. Power is not a zero-sum game, however, and ‘weaker social groups’ can also attempt to ‘make the mechanisms work for them’ (Stevens, 2007a, p 29). This task is difficult due to restricted access to the resources required to make this happen. As a result, ideas that make it into the policy arenas are those that are fit enough to survive the filtration process, mainly from gaining powerful sponsors. Evidence that is not used is that which cannot get a powerful sponsor. In this respect, there is, again, recognition of the limitations of evidence alone in influencing decision making and that politics and the media may play a key role in deciding what is permissible in decision making. The manipulation of evidence is not merely a product of policy makers tampering with ‘pure’ evidence, although undoubtedly, this does happen.

    An appraisal of the evolutionary model and the potential of a processual model

    In understanding the role of evidence in politicised policy areas such as UK drug legislative change, the evolutionary model has much to its credit. It starts from the premise that evidence is embedded in policy debates and, unlike most of the established models, highlights how it plays a role, via the mechanisms of selection. The evolutionary understanding of evidence utilisation can be interpreted in such a way that evidence can be utilised in both the process and in the evaluations or outcomes of policy. Indeed, the mechanisms relate to the way that unhelpful evidence will be sidestepped in policy formulation, but also unhelpful evaluations (p.147) of policy can be ‘buried’ by decision makers. For evidence to play a role in policy, it needs to be consistent with the view of what evidence ought to be from powerful groups, in this case, central government and policy makers. Although it has much to its credit, there are significant issues with the model that need to be addressed and ultimately make it problematic as an explanation for the role and nature of evidence in politicised areas. One key omission is any nuanced discussion of the nature of evidence, save for that which suggests that it can be produced by various agents and agencies and is broader than research.

    To fully appraise the utility of the evolutionary model, it is worth considering it alongside the more established models. As Table 8.3 shows, the evolutionary model shares many similarities with, but also departs from, the established models of research utilisation. In a similar vein to the enlightenment and dialogical models, the evolutionary model views utilisation in the process of decision making and not just in an evaluation of outcomes. In contrast to the enlightenment view, it offers an analysis of power relationships via a discussion of the mechanisms of evidence selection. In doing so, it highlights the filtration process by which certain kinds of evidence play a role in policy making, whereas others do not. This detailed discussion of evidence selection is its most striking and original contribution to the literature on utilisation.

    Table 8.3: An overview of the applicability of existing models of research utilisation and the evolutionary model in politicised policy areas

    Model/criteria

    Outcome

    Process

    Nuanced account of the nature of evidence

    Dynamic view of policy making

    Evidence central to policy

    Explanation of evidence selection

    Linear

    X

    X

    X

    X

    Enlightenment

    X

    X

    X

    Political/tactical

    X

    X

    X

    X

    Interactive

    X

    X

    X

    X

    Intellectual enterprise

    X

    X

    X

    X

    Dialogical

    X

    X

    Evolutionary

    X

    X

    X

    Somewhat paradoxically, it is also this contribution that leaves the evolutionary model open to criticism. Three main and interrelated criticisms can be garnered from the above discussion. First, like the political/tactical model, the evolutionary model does not manage to move beyond a static view of the policy-making process, often assuming that there will be a direct link between evidence and policy if evidence survives the filtration process. This line of argument, it is suggested, is (p.148) too close to that of the linear model. It is premised on a linear causal connection between evidence production and policy making.

    The second point follows on from this. The assumption that ideas that survive the filtration process will somehow be used in policy formulation is far from a foregone conclusion or clear-cut. It is worth reminding ourselves that the Nutt et al matrix was initially adopted by the New Labour government. This was demonstrated by Vernon Coaker’s statement in 2007 (referenced in Chapter Seven) that illustrated how the government was committed to using the findings of the Nutt et al matrix. The sacking of David Nutt has cast a huge question mark over this. This is not to suggest that the Nutt et al matrix has never played a part in policy deliberations, only that the connection is not straightforward, but one would be hard pressed to demonstrate that it has influenced any policy outcomes as the evolutionary model suggests it should. As a result, even evidence that survives filtration may not be used if the political conditions are not favourable. The third point is that the evolutionary model does not fully escape the spectre of teleology. At its most simple level, it has a deterministic view of the evidence and policy connection. This means that it views policies as moving towards some fixed point where they become ‘evidence-based’ or not. As has been stressed throughout this book, the relationship between evidence and policy is much more nuanced. Again, the recent fortunes of Professor Nutt are indicative of this.

    In sum, when explaining evidence use in the context of politicised policy areas, despite being an improvement on the established models, the evolutionary model is still found wanting. Its strength lies in its specific analysis of the content of the negotiations that take place in evidence debates. This manifests itself in a consideration of the mechanisms of selection, which show the relationship between evidence and policy to be complex because of other factors impacting on the policy process. Ultimately, however, the evolutionary model is not a radical enough departure from the more established versions, particularly the problematic linear version. Consequently, a modified version of the evolutionary model has been advocated – the ‘processual model’ (Monaghan, 2010).

    The processual model can be seen as a synthesis of various aspects of other established models. First and foremost, in this model evidence-based policy can refer to evidence use in both the process of policy formulation and its analysis. It is also preoccupied with the concept of evidence itself, which must be seen as both contested but with vestiges of consistency. It therefore advocates a view of evidence that is consistent with the modified version of formalism and thus takes its departure from the dialogical model. It shares the evolutionary model’s views of the mechanisms of evidence selection. It does not, however, draw the same conclusions about utilisation. In effect, the processual model is not deterministic about the connection between evidence and policy. In common with the enlightenment model, it shares a dynamic view of the policy-making process, where there is no assumption that evidence will have a direct link with policy formulation, particularly in terms of policy outcomes. It sees the evidence and policy connection, particularly in politicised areas, as being dynamic, and in (p.149) constant flux. The key aspects of the processual model are succinctly illustrated in Table 8.4, alongside those of the evolutionary model, for the purposes of comparison.

    Table 8.4: The key aspects of the evolutionary and processual models

    Model/criteria

    Outcome

    Process

    Nuanced account of the nature of evidence

    Dynamic view of policy making

    Evidence central to policy

    Explanation of evidence selection

    Evolutionary

    X

    X

    X

    Processual

    X

    The view of the policy process advocated in the processual model is one of ‘bounded pluralism’ where a range of groups compete in shaping the policy agenda. This competition is open, but it is also unequal and unpredictable (Hall et al, 1975, pp 150–1). The processual model accepts that evidence is embedded in the policy process and could percolate into decision making, but this is by no means a foregone conclusion, nor is the connection straightforward. It is here that it also departs from its evolutionary kin. The analogy of evolution assumes a logical and sequential form of policy making, and that reasonable predictions can be made about likely outcomes when in receipt of sufficient knowledge. But politicised policy areas are unpredictable and unstable. A model is therefore required that can account for the to-ing and fro-ing of policy decision making. The blueprint for this can be found in Eliasian social theory, particularly in The symbol theory (Elias, 1991) and in The civilizing process (Elias, 2000), among other works.

    It is not possible at this stage to offer a detailed overview of Elias’s understanding of evolution (see Kilminster, 2007, for an introduction and Elias, 1991, for a comprehensive account), but for current purposes we can state that Elias deemed evolutionary accounts of social phenomenon, particularly those associated with Darwin (and Spencer), as being incomplete. Instead, for Elias, evolution or progress occurs in different layers and is the product of the needs of key groups at particular times. This is the epitome of his ‘figurational’ approach to social analysis. For current purposes, it is Elias’s recognition that state formation and the concomitant ‘reduction in contrasts’ between members of society – a key aspect of the civilising process – that is of concern, in particular, the way that these developments of human society do not correspond to the teleological accounts offered by Marx or, indeed, other evolutionary analyses. According to Elias (2000, p 383):

    …[t]he movement of society and civilization certainly does not follow a straight line. Within the overall movement there are repeatedly greater (p.150) or lesser counter-movements in which the contrasts in society and the fluctuations in the behaviour of individuals, their effective outbreaks, increase again.

    This civilising process challenges the uni-directional assumptions of the progress of knowledge and human society. Kilminster (2007, p 135) effectively makes this point, claiming that when formulating the theory of the civilising process, Elias anticipated the accusation of evolutionary determinism by making a distinction between ‘largely irreversible biological evolution and potentially reversible social development’:

    The life cycle of stars and the development of societies are not of the same kind: unlike a star, it is possible for social development to go into reverse and go back to an earlier stage, say, to feudal social relations or to a stage where mutual identification is less. With this point in mind, Elias thought of civilizing and decivilizing processes, for example, as going hand in hand.

    (Kilminster, 2007, p 135)

    Although Kilminster is referring to Elias’s discussion of large-scale, macro-social processes, this provides a useful model or analogy for policy development and the evidence and policy relationship. The key phrase is ‘potentially reversible social development’. As this is the case, there is always the potential for policies to wax and wane, reverse or move forward. This may be a product of new evidence, but it could also be because of political imperatives, and relates primarily to the fact that policies are made by specific configurations of agents who act of their own volition, making choices within the confines of what is possible. These choices are not always predictable, however. Indeed, one of the only predictable aspects of politicised policies is that they are inherently unpredictable. It is this nuance that is ultimately absent from the evolutionary model.

    The processual model is put forward here as a realistic account of the evidence and policy connection. The key contribution made by the model, however, is its focus on the minutiae of evidence and how this can be operationalised as being both contested but having vestiges of certitude. To reiterate, this is because evidence and policy are always in a constant state of flux. The dynamic nature of drugs policy as a politicised area is illustrated neatly by reminding ourselves of the purpose of the ACMD, whose remit is to keep ‘under review’ the UK drug situation with respect to the drugs which ‘are being or appear to them likely to be misused’ (Science and Technology Select Committee, 2006b, p 13). In effect, they have a monitoring brief and this is precisely because the drug situation is constantly changing. The emergence on the media and political agenda of so-called ‘legal highs’ such as Gamma-Butyrolactone (GBL), Benzylpiperazine (BZP) and Mephedrone over recent years is indicative of this, as obviously is the to-ing and fro-ing over cannabis.

    (p.151) The processual model also offers a view on the tumultuous relationship between evidence and policy. The bridging of the gap between the two communities of evidence and policy is an ongoing problem, particularly in politicised areas. Whereas knowledge brokering, knowledge transfer or action research offer the potential to increase communication between the two communities, thus maximising the scope of evidence in influencing policy, they are likely to flounder in politicised areas because of the deeply held views that the protagonists hold which are fundamentally resistant to change. As a result, if research or evidence is utilised in policy then this is likely to percolate over time rather than inform directly. Consequently, the evidence into the policy process is characterised by one certainty; this is that the connection is always uncertain. With this in mind, the design, realisation and rallying cry of the processual model is perhaps best expressed by Rein’s intuitive assertion that ‘social science does contribute to policy and practice, but the link is neither consensual, graceful nor self-evident’ (Rein, 1976, p 12).

    Summary

    It has been argued in this chapter that for various reasons the established models of research utilisation do not translate successfully into models of evidence-based policy making in politicised areas. First and foremost, they say little about the tumultuous nature of evidence (or research) itself. In effect, the term evidence-based policy making is treated as if it was understood in the same way by all those who appropriate it, leaving behind a scent of universalism and essentialism. A closer appreciation of the role and nature of evidence in UK drug classification policy has revealed that, in reality, ‘evidence’ is highly contested, albeit with vestiges of consistency. Much of this contestation, but not all, comes from the fact that politicised policy areas are hotly debated by stakeholders who have particular normative views on what should (and does) count as evidence in these domains. In addition, an often overlooked feature of policy making is its dynamism. This is accelerated in politicised areas with the knock-on effect that evidence production is, likewise an iterative process.

    The established models of research utilisation also operate at too high a level of abstraction and pay scant attention to how evidence comes to play a role in the policy-making process. In this regard, the newer additions to the literature offer significant potential. These illustrate not only what the link is between evidence and policy making, but also precisely how this relationship is consolidated. The evolutionary model pioneered the journey down the ladder of abstraction to explain how evidence comes to be used in policy, but it is ultimately premised on problematic logic and has a short-term outlook on the relationship. By contrast, the processual model stops short of making deterministic assumptions. In doing so, it advocates a view of the policy process that is characterised by ad hoc, back-and-forth decision making, typical of highly politicised areas. (p.152)