Dealing with hard truths: the future of evidence-based policy in the era of post-truth politics

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'Post-truth' has been declared the word of the year by the Oxford English Dictionary.

The populist swell behind Trump’s election and the Brexit vote are being hailed as the hallmarks of the post-truth era. Facts are irrelevant. Emotion and prejudice rule. So, is this the end for evidence-based policy?

There are three reasons why this should not be so.

First, much of evidence-based policy, and especially evidence-based practice, can get below the politician’s radar. And this will become more and more the case as evidence-based best practice gets incorporated into school management, classroom practice, social care checklists and so on as a matter of routine. There will always be times when politics trumps evidence. The continued appeal of Scared Straight programmes, despite the clear evidence that they don’t work, is an example of this. But such examples can become more and more the exception, not the rule.

Second, politicians want better outcomes and are often vague on the details of the policies to achieve them. Populists are not averse to social programmes. To the contrary, they want to tackle unemployment, homelessness and so on. Let’s make those programmes evidence-based. There are opportunities for presenting evidence on which policies and programmes can best achieve the desired outcomes, such as reducing crime or getting people back into work.

It is experts who are living in the fact-free zone...

The third reason is more difficult. There is no denying that people have had enough of experts. And they are right to be fed up with experts who are out of touch with realities of day-to-day living for large numbers of people. Dismissing people who voted for Trump or Brexit as ‘not understanding the facts’ displays precisely this disconnect. People voted according to issues that concern them based on what they see in their daily lives. By failing to see this, it is experts who are living in the fact-free zone, not the new populists.

Many programmes intended for the poor and disadvantaged don’t benefit them. We need to hear their voices in the questions we address. Systematic reviews should do a better job of using evidence from process evaluations to understand barriers to participation. For example, often people don’t even know about programmes. Or the benefits are poorly communicated, with too many bureaucratic hurdles to participation, so they see it as not worth their while. And, as laid out in the PRISMA-Equity Reporting Guidelines, reviews should look at impact heterogeneity to see who really benefits.

Only if evidence is seen as working for people can we expect it to be embraced as part of the truth with which they navigate their lives.

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