The Problem of Evidenced-based Policy and a Suggestion

There is one small problem with my ongoing wish for evidence-based policy on behalf of our leaders. Who gets to pick the evidence? I am reminded of the seemingly endless stream of health impact articles where different groups massage the medical literature and come up with contradictory analysis and recommendations. Another is the endless rants from conservatives and others about how the markets will punish governments who fail to enact severe austerity on their people. Or the closely related view that making life better for the rich will somehow trickle down to improve the lots of everyone.

So I will admit that the problem is really more along the lines of what happens next as opposed to selection a priori of the evidence on which the initiative claims to be based. If one is to read the literature of major projects (My favorite is ‘Anatomy of Major Project Failures’), one common thread of failures is the lack of implementation metrics and goals to gauge the success of the initiative. So one may start out to implement a project to do X, which is claimed to provide benefit (usually measured in money) to society. But too often the cost to do X wildly exceeds the projected costs and so swamps the projected benefit. Or worse, completely fails to produce the benefits. And some of the largest failures include the redoubling of effort by management after it should have been clear that they lost their way.

So I would suggest that the real objective for this probably mythically-based idea that policy (and projects) should be evidence-based is not that one should have reasons for actions (never hurts). But establishes guideposts to determine if the desired results are being achieved. Even in the closed, contained world of corporate IT this is not easy therefor too tempting to skip. But in the real arena of public policy where there are multiple dimensions of interactions and effects it is much more difficult. But still, rather than blindly acting and ignoring the consequences it is the responsibility of leaders to see if the intended results are being achieved, even better at an affordable cost.  And the real test is to have the courage to stop and walk away if not. In any arena the later is rare indeed. The miracle, as I often think, is that anything works at all.

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