An Evidence-Based Market of Ideas

Those developing public policy related to technology or innovation almost predictably have an interest in science, technology, entrepreneurship, creativity and invention. To craft the right public policy in these areas requires at least a basic understanding of scientific facts, consideration of the best environment for experimentation and an appreciation for the creative process. For those naturally inclined to understand these elements, the use of more evidence in policymaking can seem like a small effort to make in pursuit of greater outcomes for citizens. However, while evidence-based policymaking is good, there is also a point where it can inhibit government serving citizens in a way the people want.

Evidence-based policymaking leverages the best information and research before and after policies are implemented to guide each stage of implementation and operation. The goal is to discover what works and to show where programs do not work. This provides policymakers critical information for further policy decisions and budget allocations. With measurement of key outcomes, program performance can be improved with the understanding that one cannot evaluate what is not measured. Such measurement also can identify a means for helping to reduce wasteful spending and guide policymakers to know when to begin innovative programs as well as highlight those that deliver improved outcomes.

Most people are surprised that evidence-based policymaking is not always used and used absolutely, particularly given the benefits.  There can be little doubt that research, observation, measurement and calibration can lead to better numerical results. Such an approach has been used in the U.S. since its founding — the Constitution requires a census of the population every decade. Over time, various parts of the federal government have been created, or groups have been created within parts of government, to measure performance in one way or another. The same is true in the states.

State legislators are quite familiar with evidence-based practices. More than 100 evidence-based state laws, across 42 states, were passed between 2004 and 2014 according to Results First. Hundreds more laws that provided incentives for agencies to implement certain programs were proposed but not passed.

But some do not want to stop there. They would actually empower a whole new level of government to take control. They argue that all implementation of policy choices, and in fact some policy choices themselves, should be left to an army of government appointees with specialized knowledge to administer government functions measured against some statistical or numeric “optimal” outcome. This technocracy stands in stark contrast to elected policymakers being the primary decision-makers in government. In a technocracy, the legislators are pushed to the side, if not eliminated, and so too then the citizens they represent. More specifically, a technocracy is defined by Wikipedia as, “the application of the scientific method to solving social problems. Concern could be given to sustainability within the resource base, instead of monetary profitability, so as to ensure continued operation of all social-industrial functions.”

But government is not a machine to be managed by engineers and citizens are not widgets or data points to be treated as an “optimal outcome.” Poignantly, bureaucrats will never be able to replace elected representatives in understanding what the citizens want, whether producing the most efficient and optimal results or not.

A constitutional republic or representative democracy, especially one infused with the guarantee of free expression, means ideology will always play a role in who is elected. This system may produce public policy outcomes that trade-off a so-called optimal result for something better suited to the quality or type of government one seeks. The decision is, and should be, firmly in the hands of the citizens and their representatives.

Governments at all levels should improve decision making by considering scientific evidence, but not if that means the people, their needs and desires, are silenced replaced with a cold calculus of what is “right” for them.