Are evidence-based policy and democratic equality reconcilable? – Evidence & Policy Blog

Tine Hindkjaer Madsen

This blog post is based on the Evidence & Policy article, ‘Reconciling science and democracy: evidence-based policy as seen from the perspective of a role-based democratic theory’.

For policy to be effective, it must be informed by reliable evidence, proponents of evidence-based policy argue. While this may be true, the evidence-based policy ideal nevertheless also conflicts with the requirements of democracy. This is because political equality is an essential element of democracy and evidence-based policy confers superior political influence on those who supply the evidence relative to ordinary citizens.

In my paper recently published in Evidence & Policy, I reflect on whether the evidence-based policy ideal is reconcilable with democratic equality after all. I first argue that evidence-based policy in fact also advances the value of political equality, because political equality requires that citizens be the choosers of political aims and utilising appropriate, high-quality evidence is the most reliable method of identifying how to achieve citizens’ aims. That is of course not to say that utilising appropriate, high-quality evidence will always lead to true beliefs about how to achieve a political aim, but it is the body of information we have that is most likely to be true and therefore utilising appropriate, high-quality evidence makes it more likely that citizens’ aims be realised. 

Meanwhile, it is simultaneously true that utilising evidence, even when it is appropriate and of high-quality, also risks leaving some political decisions with experts, thereby depriving citizens and their representatives of their legitimate decision-making authority. One concrete way in which this happens is when there are political and moral value judgments in the evidence employed for policy. For example, a scientific advisory body must consider whether the available evidence is sufficient for accepting a hypothesis in the particular political context. In so doing, they must consider the potential consequence of error in the form of false negatives or false positives in the relevant context and make judgments about what risks to accept. Those are political and moral value judgments.

I argue that this problem should be mitigated by having those who are legitimate representatives of the population serve on scientific advisory committees making the necessary value judgments. Scientists should initially present a report laying out the uncertainties of the hypotheses under consideration. Political representatives from each party represented in parliament then make the value judgments about what risks to accept under uncertainty in order to ensure that the political aims of their voters remain the guiding goal throughout the evidence utilisation process. There can then be a back and forth where aims and means are continuously revised according to the value judgments political representatives make and the implications scientific findings have in light of these value judgments until multiple sets of recommendations are reached. Indeed, instead of making one consensus recommendation, the scientific advisory committee should consider the implications of scientific findings for each package of value judgments made by the representatives of each political party. 

The committee’s work should result in a publication consisting, first, of the report initially provided by the scientists exclusively laying out the uncertainties of the hypotheses, second, of the committee meeting minutes, and, finally, of the resulting recommendations. The publication enables citizens and civil society organizations to track and critically engage with the development from scientific finding to recommendation.

In sum, evidence-based policy simultaneously advances and comes into conflict with political equality. Yet, there are ways in which to diminish the extent to which political equality is undermined. The proposal presented here is one way to approximate the democratic ideal of political equality, and more strategies are needed.

Image credit: Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash

Tine Hindkjaer Madsen is a visiting research fellow at Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. Her research interests focus on issues such as the roles of politicians, civil servants and experts in democratic decision-making, democratic theory, evidence-based policy and civil disobedience. She has published in Evidence and Policy (2024), The Journal of Moral Philosophy (2021), Criminal Law and Philosophy (2021), and Res Publica (2019). 

Read the original research in Evidence & Policy:

Madsen, T.H. (2024). Reconciling science and democracy: evidence-based policy as seen from the perspective of a role-based democratic theory. Evidence & Policy, DOI: 10.1332/17442648Y2024D000000021.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested in reading:

Experiences and perceptions of evidence use among senior health service decision makers in Ireland: a qualitative study OPEN ACCESS

When is it justified to claim that a practice or policy is evidence-based? Reflections on evidence and preferences OPEN ACCESS

Productive interactions in a port city: a proximity approach to coordination in science-policy collaborations OPEN ACCESS

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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