In evidence-based decision making, policy creation does not simply mean developing policies that implement recommendations from research. The policy makers must think carefully about the information that they use and whose interests the different policies serve. Some studies may be biased since they favour some interest groups above others. As a result, policies based on such studies may not be informed by evidence relating to the full range of relevant stakeholder perspectives. For instance, policy development generally does not include studies based on different ways of knowing outside of the traditional western conceptions of knowledge. In such scenarios, policy makers must find a way to balance the needs and desires of different stakeholders, examine evidence for biases, and incorporate various knowledge systems to create policies that best serve the public interest.
For effective policy development, policy makers must consider who the stakeholders are, the role the stakeholders take in policy development, and which stakeholders could be given priority in meeting the goals of a policy. For instance, doctors, nurses, patients, pharmacists, and insurance providers would likely be stakeholders that a policy maker would consider engaging in the development of a public health policy. However, according to the Brussels Declaration, alcohol and tobacco companies are also considered major stakeholders as they are seen as interest groups with legitimate interests in the creation of some health policies (McCambridge, Daube, & McKee, 2018). Involvement of such companies may seem counter-intuitive, as the companies likely would not have the public’s best interest in mind because their products are often regulated for the benefit of public health. However, on the matter of regulation, they have the right for their voices to be heard. The Brussels declaration does not force policy makers to consider the alcohol and tobacco companies above other stakeholders. The Declaration only guarantees such companies the right to be heard during consultation processes since some health policies can directly affect the companies and their interests. If a policy designed to increase the consumption of alcohol or tobacco was implemented, doctors and nurses would want to be consulted as such a policy will run contrary to their work, and, as a consequence, the reverse consultation requirement is also applicable. Ultimately, policy makers must balance the interests of these different stakeholders. Nonetheless, in a scenario where the main objective is to ensure public health, related polices must prioritize the information provided by health officials over the information provided by alcohol and tobacco companies.
Policy makers must be wary of biases in research when examining the available information while developing a policy. Public agencies can face threats of political interference and they are not immune to biases. For example, consider the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States. This agency often receives pressure from the political forces of the day in its decision-making processes (Adashi, Rajan, & Cohen, 2019). Political interference is capable of influencing the outcomes of decision making by the FDA, thereby undermining the agency’s credibility as a science-based decision-making body dedicated to protecting Americans. As the FDA is branded as a science-based governance body, policy developers elsewhere may rely on the research used by the FDA in their own policy development without realizing biases are in the work. Thus, no matter the source of information, policy makers must exercise due caution while consulting evidence, or at least be aware of any biases present in research so they can account for them while developing their own policies. Furthermore, public entities conducting research to be used in policymaking should take steps to ensure they are drawing on evidence as bias-free as possible, lest the reputation of the organizations be tarnished by political interference.
A multidisciplinary approach to data collection must be considered in policy-making. For example, while examining the impacts of climate change in order to create policies that will help to mitigate the disastrous results, such as presence of invasive species, the easier spread of disease, mass migration, and the impact on disadvantaged communities compared to other areas, policy makers will need to consult research in many different fields, not only climate science. Likewise, specific public health impacts related to changes in biodiversity as a result of climate change may require evidence from multiple fields of science, such as biology and healthcare, to create solutions. Additional fields of study, such as urban planning, are also needed to create policies and solutions to address the problem (Marselle et al., 2019). The information required may not always be located in one place, and policy makers must be able to consult a variety of disciplines and fields in order to construct helpful and impactful policies.
Not only is it critical to think about the stakeholders and different fields that should be considered in decision making, it is also crucial that policy makers draw on the different ways of knowing and epistemologies of different groups. For example, with regard to decisions surrounding water governance in Canada, it is particularly important to consider the various Indigenous communities and their knowledge systems, which differ from traditional western ways of knowing. As Arsenault and colleagues discuss, it can be problematic when one community views water as a commodity while others, such as Indigenous groups, view water differently. Water impacts the spiritual, physical, and mental health of Indigenous people and is viewed as both a vital part of creation, and the creation of life itself (Arsenault, Diver, McGregor, Witham, & Bourassa, 2018). Differing views about water problematizes how water is governed, which is why policy makers should incorporate two-eyed seeing from Indigenous research methods in their inquiries and policy development. In the course of any policy development, policy makers should consider all of the communities affected by a policy, as well as different traditions and ways of knowing in order to produce a policy that accounts for the impacts it has on different communities.
Policy creation requires policy-makers to be able to prioritize and consider different stakeholders, avoid biases, and consult different fields and ways of knowing in order to generate impactful and effective policies. Policy makers must be adept at balancing these various concerns in their policy development work. Many different factors must be considered while developing evidence-based policies. Therefore, effective evidence-based decision-making entails careful consideration of all of the available information. Furthermore, policymaking requires skilled practitioners who can strike a balance among all the factors.
Adashi, E. Y., Rajan, R. S., & Cohen, I. G. (2019, May 17). When science and politics collide: Enhancing the FDA. Science, 364(6441), 628-631. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw8093
Arsenault, R., Diver, S., McGregor, D., Witham, A., & Bourassa, C. (2018). Shifting the framework of Canadian water governance through Indigenous research methods: Acknowledging the past with an eye on the future. Water, 10(1), 49. https://doi.org/10.3390/w10010049
Marselle, M. R., Stadler, J., Korn, H., Irvine, K. N., & Bonn, A. (2019). Biodiversity and health in the face of climate change: Perspectives for science, policy and practice. In M. R. Marselle, J. Stadler, H. Korn, K. N. Irvine, & A. Bonn (Eds.), Biodiversity and health in the face of climate change (pp. 451–472). Cham: Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-02318-8_20
McCambridge, J., Daube M., & McKee, M. (2018). Brussels Declaration: A vehicle for the advancement of tobacco and alcohol industry interests at the science/policy interface? Tobacco Control, 28, 7-12. doi: 10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2018-054264
Authors: Ally Patton, Kyle Doucette, and Shannon Faires
This blog post is part of a series of posts authored by students in the graduate course “The Role of Information in Public Policy and Decision Making” offered at Dalhousie University.