Missing The Boat on Evidence-Based Decision Making

You've probably seen the “Stand up for Science” protests in the news recently; the gist is that scientists want the government to stop 'muzzling' science, and use evidence-based decision making to guide policy and practice.

The organizers of these protests say they plan to “focus on drafting policies that reflect best practices on research integrity and funding priorities and will urge the country’s political leaders to adopt them”.

OK, that's a good start, but they missed the boat on the rest of the process; or to be more charitable, they presented an incomplete answer. Evidence-based decision making is useless unless you test your assumptions.

Let me explain that. First, everybody has an opinion. Political parties are founded (and funded ;-) by groups of people who have similar opinions about the policy and practice of good government.

And an opinion is essentially an untested hypothesis. In other words politicians have made assumptions about the way the world works, and what they can do to improve outcomes.

Here's the rub: your (and their) definition of 'improve' depends on what you think the problem is. In other words, the questions you ask are going to determine the answers you come up with. To quote Peter Drucker “People look for the facts that fit the conclusion they have already reached. No one ever failed to find the facts he is looking for”.

So even basing policy-making on 'facts' can be prone to error, if we are asking the wrong questions. This is just as true of basing policy on 'research' as it would be if we used, say, astrology. And you know what? Starting in the wrong place doesn't matter, so long as you have a process in place to detect the error and make corrections.

To quote Drucker again, 'One doesn't argue hypotheses; one tests them”. In other words, you find out which hypotheses produce results that match real-world experience. If you get unanticipated results, or the 'wrong' result, you need a process to find out why.

In fact, the very first responsibility of policy makers should be asking the question, 'what do we need to do/know/measure to test the validity of this policy'? 

This is what robust, 'real-world' performance measurement does for you, by the way; it lets decision-makers ask better questions. Maybe we should call this 'Evidence-based question asking'!

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We've been helping public sector organizations 'ask the right questions' and build robust, practical, performance measurement systems for a couple of decades. If you would like to discuss how PRS might help your organization (e.g. with assessment, training, facilitation, or implementation using  our performance reporting software), contact Scott Kelland Scott@public-sector-performance.com 613 302-3924 or PRS Vice President Charlie Snelling Charlie@public-sector-performance.com 613 744-4084.


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