Policy making is not a straightforward process and can be a messy exercise, with domestic political agendas, norms, values, regional commitments and global movements all wanting to have a say in how policy is formulated. Evidence is often regarded as a neutral player in the game and promoted for its ability to present scientific facts and logic without favouring a specific policy outcome. It is important to realise that, while proper research methodologies ensure that the evidence itself is neutral, the mere fact that we are utilising the evidence in an engagement process to influence policy and programmes, makes “evidence into action” a political process, which, by definition is not neutral. By promoting evidence into action, we need to recognise that we are pushing a certain agenda - the evidence agenda - and by doing so we are engaging the other players in the field and have taken on a position in the process. Evidence might very well be neutral, but stakeholders promoting evidence to inform decision making are not.
Myth number 2: Evidence is best used to highlight a policy problem
One of the main strengths of presenting evidence is to highlight that there is a pertinent societal problem that needs to be addressed through policy and programme changes. In other words, we are aiming to present evidence that convinces others to pay more attention to one matter and move it higher on the political agenda, ensuring that stakeholders pay serious attention. Well, the reality is that it’s not enough to merely present evidence that shows that there is a problem. Evidence is required to feed into the processes that generate debate, that revise and ultimately adopt proposals to respond to the problem. These proposals are usually more successful if they are seen to be technically feasible, compatible with decision maker values, reasonable in cost and appealing to the public. Each of these criteria needs evidence to inform it. So, now that we have highlighted the problem and presented good solutions, the job is done isn’t it? Well, not quite yet, for evidence to be put into action, it needs supportive political factors (hence EiA is a political activity). There is also a need to be aware of, and engaged in processes around possible changes in elected officials, political climate or mood and the voices of advocacy or opposition groups. In a nutshell, don’t think the job is done when the problem is recognised as urgent, one needs to be part of the entire process to ensure the policy window does not close and efforts fall to the wayside.
Myth number 3: Real evidence into action is measured through changes in policies
Surely, we all wish to see policy changes taking place just because we have generated and put evidence into action that directly informs policies. The reality is that policies are just one part of the spectrum of processes that can better the lives of vulnerable groups. Policies and guidelines are often based on large randomised control trails, meta analysis and systematic reviews. But there is a wider range of evidence that gets generated across the world,. This includes case studies, operational research, programmatic evaluations, expert opinions and anecdotal evidence. Each category of evidence has a place to inform, not only policy, but programmes, practice, operating procedures and attitudes. All these “non-policy” categories are valid EiA categories and changes in each of them, informed by evidence, constitute measures and can be counted as evidence into action. Don’t forget that dismissal counts as successful EiA too. The timing might not be right for a specific body of knowledge to inform policy and practice. This does not mean that the timing will never be right, as long as the evidence has been considered and has been debated, it has been put into action, regardless of the immediate outcome.
Myth number 4: Putting evidence into action is the responsibility of the academics
The generators and owners of the evidence are surely best placed to put evidence into action? Well, yes and no. The first responsibility of academics in the EiA process is to generate good quality research and make valid research findings without prejudice and bias. (If the evidence cannot be trusted then, automatically, those who utilise the evidence to engage cannot be trusted, which does not assist evidence into action activities.) Sometimes, academics feel they need to maintain a certain distance and not get directly involved in the EiA engagement activities. In EHPSA we have found that usually this turns out to be an unfounded fear. In the end, I would argue that we are using either government funding, or international community funding, - which is all taxpayers money - and therefore we all have a responsibility to ensure that evidence is put into action.
Myth number 5: Publication and dissemination equate to evidence into action
Finalising the analysis of the findings, writing it into a journal article, getting it peer reviewed and published in high impact journals and conferences - all of these remain perfectly valid routes towards dissemination. However, much more is needed to ensure that evidence is put into action. EiA is a process that requires engagement with the right kind of influential stakeholders. This engagement should happen early in the research process, it should be done in a responsible manner, with good quality research processes, and it should happen continuously throughout the research continuum. The process of evidence making (note that I am not referring to the process of policy making, but the process of research making), should be leveraged at key stages of the research continuum (call for proposal, proposal development, protocol development, literature review, tools & methodology, data collection, analysis and findings) and engagement with carefully selected stakeholders should happen at each of these stages. By the time the results are published and disseminated, the results from the engagement can be harvested as the ground has been prepared for evidence into action.