Policy Practitioners’ Engagement With Evidence-Based Policy: A discursive analysis
The idea that there should be a link between systematically structured knowledge and the policies pursued by governments is not new. Its pre-20th century roots include attempts to establish a ‘science of society’ by social reformers of the 18th and 19th centuries, aspects of the emergence of the modern state system and, arguably, stretch back to classical philosophy and religious scholarship. Since the late 1990s, however, it has assumed special prominence as a global movement that encourages jurisdictions to explicitly incorporate the language of evidence in their understanding and definitions of good policy. While this agenda goes by a number of names, the most common is ‘evidence-based policy’ (EBP).
This evidentiary turn in policy has generated an extensive body of associated scholarship, involving a diverse range of theoretical positions, critiques, and debates. However, such literature has largely concentrated on macro- and meso-level system issues: structures for knowledge uptake and transfer, principles for using evidence, and underlying conceptual debates. Far less well-explored – and almost entirely absent in relation to Aotearoa New Zealand – are the experiences and perspectives of the practitioners working in policy development. This gap is especially glaring if policy work is treated not as a process of problem-solving, but rather as a humanistic and socially situated practice. Treating practitioners as active and interested participants in the creation of policy means treating them as the ultimate determinants of how evidence manifests in, and influences the outputs of, policy work. Similarly, through their work policy officials create and adopt formal and informal evidentiary definitions, accepted standards, and relevant weightings. It is through applying these social constructs that ‘information’ is transformed into ‘evidence’. While such practices are constrained by the environments within which they work, it is ultimately the practitioner who locates, analyses, and incorporates evidence within policy work.
In this thesis, I use the concept of interpretive repertoires from discursive psychology as frameworks to explore how those involved in policy work engage with the idea of evidence-based policy. These repertoires are symbolic sets of meanings, characterisations, and relationships that people can use as resources for engaging with phenomena. Just as a musician’s repertoire represents a set of pre-existing pieces that they can perform, an interpretive repertoire is a pre-existing conceptual framework that a person can use to interpret (or establish the meaning of) ideas, actions, or settings and link them to each other in a coherent way. I approach this topic from an interpretive and critical perspective, taking policies as the results of a fundamentally social process shaped by the interaction of different values, interests, and cultural assumptions. The research has involved in-depth interviews with senior officials in the field of skills policy, including advisors and analysts, managers overseeing teams of such officials, and officials focused on developing and generating evidence for policy. I analysed interview texts to identify repertoires operating across three domains: repertoires of practice (what it means to work as a policy official), repertoires of context (what influences the environment in which officials work), and repertoires of evidence (the role of evidence in policy work).
I identified three main repertoires each of practice and context, and five main repertoires of evidence. I also found that individual repertoires clustered across domains to produce three interpretive stances toward evidence-based policy work. The Evaluative stance is characterised by valorising diversity, debate, and judgement; the Scientific stance values rigour, truth-seeking, and consistency; and the Pragmatic stance emphasises utility, compromise, and sustainability. Each stance integrates practitioners’ constructions of the work they do, the context for that work, and the purpose of evidence into a coherent framework of meaning that supports them to engage with the abstract concept of evidence-based policy.
This work contributes primarily to two key literatures. Firstly, the thesis adds to a relatively small but growing body of empirical research into evidence use in policy work environments. It makes a particularly novel contribution here by situating evidence use as a type of social process, and focusing on deep exploration of practitioner ‘voice’ as a way of analysing this process. Secondly, the research makes a methodological contribution to the analysis of policy work by demonstrating the value of using concepts from discursive psychology as a way of exploring the position of practitioners within the policy environment. Through discussion of the repertoires and stances I identified in practitioners’ interviews, I present a more nuanced picture of approaches towards evidence amongst policy practitioners in Aotearoa New Zealand.