Transforming sound data into practical policies: Evidence-based policy-making

Billions of rands are spent every year on development policies and programmes, although there is relatively little evidence on the true impact these interventions have on the lives of the poor. By adopting an evidence-based approach, policy-makers can sift through, examine and compare all the alternatives, presented through rigorous scientific research and other evidence, to answer questions about the nature of the problems under scrutiny. 

This idea that policy and practice should be underpinned by evidence is internationally accepted, and in a time of public service reform and more decentralised decision-making, the need for timely, accessible and reliable evidence is becoming ever more important. But useful evidence on what programmes or policies work is hard to come by, in part because it is so difficult to attribute changes in people’s lives to a programme, rather than other, external factors. The scarcity of evidence on programme impact, and the technical language in which the little evidence that does exist is presented, makes it inaccessible to many, including policy-makers, forcing them to rely on intuition and anecdotal evidence in deciding which programmes to fund and implement. 

To support the transformation agenda in South Africa, it is therefore imperative that we promote a shift towards the development, dissemination and uptake of policy-relevant data and research becoming a normative practice in the policy-making arena. As the South Africa’s Statistician-General, Pali Lehohla, pointed out in his presentation on “Why statistics matter” at the high-level Multidimensional Poverty Peer Network meeting in Berlin in 2014, statistics are about people, places and possibilities, not about numbers, and should be used for planning, measuring development and impact, and policy development.

The National Development Plan has highlighted the need for EBPM to improve the effectiveness of government policy; if the best available evidence can be understood and used, new policies and projects will be more effective and have a higher probability of success. 

But the process of transferring research evidence from the page and incorporating it into workable policy solutions has long been a challenge for researchers and policy-makers. Many factors hinder the process, including ineffective communication among stakeholders, lack of access to research, poor comprehension of how research is relevant to policy-making, lack of skills to interpret and use evidence, lack of relevance of research, political interference, and power and budget struggles. But this is starting to change. 

The PSPPD continues to successfully address these factors, and an encouraging transformation in the policy landscape is starting to emerge.