Evidence-based policy making can help create powerful stories for change

Profile picture for user Mark Samuels By Mark Samuels October 3, 2019
In a digital age, public sector stakeholders must ensure that facts and data underpin their decision-making.


Policy makers must ensure the facts they use to convince people of the value of change are presented as part of strong but simple public narrative.

That was the conclusion of an expert panel at an event in London held by the Economist Group and The Pew Charitable Trusts. The event was part of the Evidence Initiative, a project by both organisations that explores the use of facts and data in decision-making today. 

The aim of the project is to foster a discussion about the use of facts in a digital age. The proliferation of information has lowered the barriers for data-led governance, meaning governments potentially have more power today than ever before to identify challenges and create solutions to key societal concerns.

The panel discussion was preceded by the presentation of both organisations’ newly-released Evidence Map, which tracks the availability and characteristics of publicly available, policy-relevant data in the G20 countries across five key themes: ageing and retirement, digital inclusion, disaster risk, financial inclusion, and youth employment.

Leo Abruzzese, Senior Global Advisor of Public Policy at the Economist Intelligence Unit, presented the Map and suggested that the wealth of evidence collected by individual nations tends to be closely related to short-term requirements, rather than long-term aims:

Countries tend to focus on what their interests are – the fire that’s in front of them, rather than the one that might break out in two months’ time. But if you only focus on the fire in front, you’re not ready for the crisis that’s coming next. It’s worthwhile collecting data on all these points or you’ll find yourselves behind the curve when problems crop up.

The panellists at the event discussed the reasons why governments and other organisations use facts to make decisions. They debated the importance of emotions and values when it comes to decision-making processes. Sue Urahn, executive vice-president and chief program officer at The Pew Charitable Trusts, suggested that governments make decisions that aren’t emotional:

Any state in the US is going to invest money in programmes that are designed to help people coming out of prisons. They have an enormous number of programmes to choose from and they have to decide which ones are best. You can replicate that conversation hundreds and thousands of times across the country. Those decisions are not necessarily emotional. They have to be driven by thoughtful conversations about where to invest millions of dollars, so that lives are going to get better. Politics is about the integration of values and data; you can never take the values out of data.

Government officials, therefore, must consider how they use data carefully. Carlos Menendez, President of Enterprise Partnerships at Mastercard, raised the issue of storytelling, suggesting it plays a key role in decision-making processes:

I think you feel before you think – and even in the business world, where the assumption is that the numbers drive the decisions, a lot of it is about a story around those numbers and how you're making decisions. The battle is in the stories around data and the different values about what's more important. I would argue that the story overrides the numbers in almost all cases.

Menendez said organisations need to use data as a North Star, a mission statement that helps guide individual decision-making. He said initiatives like the Evidence Map allow policy makers to see information and understand what interventions might be possible. Fellow panellist Bobby Duffy, Professor of Public Policy and Director of The Policy Institute at King’s College London, said any use of data in policy decisions must be understood within its context of application:

We’re building a better understanding of the real-life context in which this evidence lands. Research already shows that you need to understand the narratives, the values and the identities, and you need to understand the misperceptions and the emotions. But the objective is not to say that, because of those factors, the evidence is useless – you have to understand the context within which this data lands. And that need is crucial. You can then start to think about how you use data in your theory of change – and we boil that down to translation, trust and time. That helps you get an understanding of data-use in context.


David Halpern, Chief Executive at Behavioural Insights Team, agreed that context is crucial. He suggested the way that data is presented plays a critical role in the way it is used and consumed by organisations and citizens:

If you present information and data in the right way, it can improve comprehension. We need to think about how we make evidence legible. And as you increase comprehension, you increase trust in institutions. The way that data is presented is not an incidental matter – it’s actually key. And if you can take out some friction, you’ll make a big difference.”

Such is the importance of presentation, suggested Halpern, that data only really starts to becomes interesting when its attached to choices and policies. He said people engage better when you give them outline solutions to potential challenges:

So, in policy terms, just describing differences gives you an opening gambit but – by itself – it’s just a fact. It only becomes interesting when you can attach it to a policy or choice. It’s about choices and interventions. And that's the area which arguably is the most undercooked – using data to actively test interventions in areas like prison reform or teaching. So, rather than just telling people the world is terrible, people actually do engage better when you give them some kind of upline solution. Showing that one country is worst in a particular area is interesting, but it's not that engaging cognitively or emotionally. But when you use the data to say you have a real choice, then it is much more consequential for policy makers as practitioners.

Panellists agreed that policy makers who insert data into a persuasive narrative can have a significant impact. The story that surrounds data is a key element in helping to convince people of the need for change – and that story, suggested King’s College’s Duffy, must be clear and digestible:

The number one barrier to people understanding is time – it’s time to ingest. It’s not about the technical ability to understand maths. Simplicity is our friend, not our enemy; we need to make the story as simple as possible. Give time-precious people a simple answer that is not simplistic – and that’s the key.