Emma Crewe – sources on evidence based policymaking in parliaments

This is the first in a series of posts on sources used for a presentation on evidence based policymaking in parliaments

“politicians will necessarily be in the business of making political judgements rather than merely rational assessments”

p. 209, Crewe, 2015

Emma Crewe’s ‘House of Commons: an Anthropology of MPs at Work’ (2015) is an account of how UK Members work, based on anthropological observation. It provides insight into how Members actually use information and make decisions – academic study that appeared almost completely absent ten years ago when I researched ‘Members use of information’. Crewe does not directly address parliamentary library/research service issues (neither term is indexed) but she does make some very relevant observations on ‘evidence’ and how Members in the UK parliament use it.

Her findings are not supportive of the classic (mythical) ideal that Members are in desperate need of scientific evidence (supplied by parliamentary library/research), that they are overwhelmed with information so must choose the high value parliamentary products as a solution, and that they process this scientific evidence to reach a decision.

Crewe notes that it is unlikely that research can produce incontrovertible facts and define solutions: rather Members can investigate and debate different bodies of knowledge and contested claims, and make a judgement. This, of course, is what most parliamentary research/library services support in practice – they provide syntheses of possibly conflicting research evidence and leave Members to reach the policy conclusions. The error in the mythical version is to claim that Members rely on such research products for decision making, whereas the reality is that parliamentary research sometimes, for some Members, plays a role, amongst other evidence. Crewe also notes that ‘evidence’ (and truth) mean different things in law and in science. Politicians, she believes, operate in both modes – so their understanding of what is ‘evidence’ to be used in reaching judgements on policy questions is rather different to that of a science-based researcher.

Crewe highlights research contrasting one piece of legislation based on careful research (with a result seen as successful) with another in the same area with a very flimsy research base (with a result seen as disastrous). She nevertheless finds it difficult to argue for purely evidence based policy – decisions require a mix of politics, morality and science, not one alone. There is generally no easy evidence-based solution: political judgements are needed. These judgements call on evidence but also politics and morality. Furthermore, this ‘evidence’ is not only science but also views and information gathered in encounters with others – notably stakeholders in the policy area, and other Members of all parties.

As Crewe portrays it, Members of parliament come across evidence in many different ways, and discuss and debate policy options, often out of public sight and over extended periods. There is more knowledge in decision-making than might be apparent, and in addition they are skilled in making political and moral judgements. I would add that, like all humans and perhaps more than most, they have the capacity for fast and frugal decision making. They do not have the need or time to rely on parliamentary research products to reach decisions.

It is of course important to make no assumption that the House of Commons is a signifier for other parliaments; its structures and ways of working are not exactly typical of parliaments in general. So its approach to evidence may not be typical either.

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