This is one in a series of posts on sources on evidence based policymaking in parliaments
‘Evidence in Action – an analysis of information gathering and use by Canadian parliamentarians’ Kimberly Girling, Research and Policy Director, Evidence for Democracy and Katie Gibbs, Executive Director, Evidence for Democracy. November 2019
This substantial report on the use of evidence by Members in Canada is the product of a campaigning organisation which describes itself as
“the leading fact-driven, non-partisan, not-for-profit organization promoting the transparent use of evidence in government decision-making in Canada. Through research, education and issue campaigns, Evidence for Democracy engages and empowers the science community while cultivating public and political demand for evidence-based decision-making”
Drawing on a 2013 survey, the report notes that academic information was the most highly valued by Members but not the most frequently used. They more often sourced information from ‘internal’ providers, notably government reports and political party research. They also made signficant use of information provided by lobby groups and from various personal contacts in their ‘policy networks’.
For now, the authors state
“There is still relatively little known about how evidence is used by the legislative branch of government in Canada. Although a few studies have begun to investigate this internationally, there is still a need for better Canadian understanding of the process by which information is gathered and used by parliamentarians, where the gaps are in this process, and how we can improve this cycle.”p.10
This appears to represent the state of play, until very recently, in terms of independent research on Members’ use of information, worldwide.
To begin to fill this gap in knowledge, the organisation ran a study involving a sample of Members (17 in total). This showed, amongst other things, that although Members described using multiple information sources for any topic they were involved with, the Library of Parliament is the most widely used source of information (used by 94% of Members in the sample). The information characteristic valued by the largest part of the Members (65%) is ‘credibility’ – which means for them information that is verifiable, accurate and trusted. The authors probed on how ‘credibility’ was judged (pp. 21-24) and found that Members employed a variety of methods – not all of them certain. Almost 60% of Members included personal knowledge and relationships as a method of verification. The second important characteristic was ‘relevance‘ of the information to the work in hand. The Members and their staff, as elsewhere, do not have the time to read lengthy scientific papers. Relevant information needs to be signposted, accessible and concise. The policy/political impact of the information has to be clear.
The Library can be assumed to score highly on both credibility and relevance:
“In general, MPs preferred the Library because it allows them to make tailored requests for information that is specific and relevant to their individual needs, and because the results are unbiased, non-partisan, and delivered quickly. Sometimes MPs relied on the Library of Parliament to provide them with information to support a particular argument, for background on topics they do not understand well, or for help analyzing a particular policy impact of a specific topic. The Library supports committee work and bill preparation and prepares MPs for debates. Overall, the Library of Parliament was the most commonly used tool available to MPs.”p. 15
(Note, however, that wide use does not tell us anything about frequency or impact of use). When questioned about ‘research’ as a source of information, the Members were rather vague as to its definition – referring to information collected or reviewed in a rigorous or deliberate way, and to reputable or credible sources. Curiously, only 24% considered the Library as providing ‘research’, although 53% considered the Library as a key source of research-based evidence. Perhaps they make a distinction between the Library’s own products and either summaries or full texts of external research publications?
On the question of what value research information has, it is striking that most of the reasons are not about using it to make decisions. The reasons are e.g. to win debates, to avoid the embarassment of making incorrect statements, to verify or fact check existing information , to fight disinformation, to use in citizen communications, to cherry-pick results to suit the political position. That said, 24% did consider objectivity of research information to be a key characteristic, allowing more partisan information to be checked; and some considered the use of research evidence a matter of principle.
Given Members tendency to make and use personal connections, and preference for oral communications, it is not surprising that the study found that many Members use personal contact with scientists to get advice and information on scientific policy issues. Partly this is about speed, convenience and trust. It is also notable, however, that some do this because, while the Library can provide summaries and full texts of published science, it cannot provide the latest intelligence which is unpublished.
The main challenges in using research information include the usual ones of time and volume of information. But the most common issue mentioned was lack of objectivity, or fear that it was not objective – even with ‘research’ information – and the difficulty in verification. This issue was compounded by the tendency for scientific research to deliver apparently contradictory findings and/or recommendations. Or recommendations that conflicted with political sense (constituency interests etc). In short, research evidence is not that easy for Members to handle.
The report offers several solutions for improving the use of scientific research in parliament. Highlights:
- Scientists to get more involved with parliamentary committees, with greater understanding of how they work.
- Connecting Members to experts.
- Training for Members on verification of information.
- Connecting scientists to the policy cycle.
- Improving the communication of science to policy makers.
- Increasing the accountability of policy makers to use evidence.
As my own observation, there are several points where a library/research service could support the process – as a boundary-spanning organisation, they can help connect the scientific and policy worlds. The report specifcially mentions point 3 as an area for the Library to contribute.
The ‘solutions’ at the end of the report do not exactly match the ‘recommendations’ at its start – one recommendation being increased resources for the Library.
‘Evidence in action’ web page.