Written by: Joe Sloyan
Policy evaluation, in the ex-post understanding, describes the ‘assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of public programs and projects’ (Bovens et al: 2009, p.1). Policy evaluation both academically and in common currency is frequently thought of as a common and, above all, objective enterprise. A rationalistic understanding of policy would have us believe that policies are evaluated against predefined goals and remedied accordingly. I seek to illustrate that is scarcely, if ever the case- and the prime culprit is the player of the partisan political game. I will show how the pressures of partisan politics encourages the prohibition of policy evaluation, or actively obscures its findings according to partisan interests- and importantly, who this affects and why.
How partisan politics affects policy evaluations
What must first be understood, is that policy necessarily exists in the context of politicians and public employees with partisan investment in those policies. Policies are, indeed, ‘creatures of political decisions’ (Weiss: 1993, p.94).
Policies are proposed, defined, and implemented by those with- whether for career or partisan incentives- investment in a particular policy appearing successful, and are therefore subject to both hostile and supportive pressure of political games.
A common outcome is that political pressure is put on evaluators to alter or undermine the process of sanctioning a policy evaluation in order to protect political reputations. This gives rise to the curious ‘paradox of evaluation’: potentially problematic policies are rarely evaluated in partisan settings, since their evaluation will only be sanctioned if their results are promised to not be implemented or scrutinised (Hogwood and Gunn: 1984, p.227).
‘the assessment of policy…may be done for the purposes of merely projecting a perceived political reality, rather than actually assessing the merits or flaws of a policy.’
Political reputations play a key role in the sanctioning of evaluation by doing so according to political interest. An example of this can be seen in prison reform. There is no meaningful correlation between the number of major evaluations and policy-learning efforts towards prison reform, and actual indicators of (such as the number of escapees, prison riots, etc.) penal system performance. Rather, these evaluations largely arise in response to political commotion rather than any objective indicators of policy success or failure. Such evaluations do not arise in response to indicators of policy success or failure, but cues of partisan political games. We see therefore, that policy evaluation may be done for the purposes of merely projecting a perceived political reality, rather than actually assessing the merits or flaws of a policy.
Though, the politicisation of policy evaluation does not end with the sanctioning of policy evaluation. Policy evaluations may be carried out in what appears to be a transparent and non-partisan way, but the way and extent to which its findings are utilised form a prime battleground for political games.
Partisan interests mean that evaluation findings are often presented in disingenuous ways which favour these interests. This can be demonstrated by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government’s 2011 Troubled Families Programme (TFP), a policy which attempted to rehabilitate ‘troubled families’ consistently involved in the criminal justice system. An evaluation of this policy produced by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, praised the policy as a success on account of the ‘average gross cost saving’ to the taxpayer per family amounting to £12,000, or twice the cost of the initiative (Parliament. House of Commons, 2020).
Though, further assessments have illustrated that research was intentionally misrepresented, statistics invented, and independent reports were actively suppressed (Crossley and Smith: 2018). Such assessments have since revealed that the TFP in fact had no ‘significant or systemic impact’ (Ibid.) across its own defined objectives. This shows how even if policy evaluations are sanctioned, the pressure of politics presents two major problems to evaluators: their attempts to evaluate may be openly suppressed, or the content of evaluation may be actively misrepresented in accordance with partisan interests. The TFP serves as a sobering case in point that the political character of policy and evaluation means that even if evaluation is allowed to take place, it is subject to the pressures of partisan political games.
Who does this affect?
The short answer to this is everyone. While academics, policymakers and the like are closely concerned with the scrutiny of policy, evaluating the effectiveness of policies is not confined to academia or any ‘Westminster bubble’- it is a necessary presupposition to democratic accountability.
Mountains of scholarship tells us that a functioning democracy is contingent on the public being able to reward politicians that are responsive to public demands, and sanction those that are not (Hellwig and Samuels: 2008, p.67). Though what this presupposes, is that the public are informed about policy outcomes in order to ascertain politicians’ responsiveness in the first place.
So, if we know that partisan policymakers are concerned with the restriction- or outright manipulation- of the dissemination of information relating to policy outcomes, who could be more intimately affected by this than those whom we trust to make informed decisions about the performance of these policymakers?
I have attempted to show the salient, but often neglected, significance of the influence of partisan political pressures on the production and dissemination of policy evaluation. Policies are not the rational problem-solving enterprise they often claim to be, but fundamentally ‘creatures of political decisions’. Those with partisan interest in a policy appearing successful may openly prohibit its evaluation, or obscure and manipulate findings if evaluations are sanctioned.
We are currently grappling with the monumental bipartisan issue of response to COVID-19 and a political arena which threatens unprecedented levels of partisanship. More than ever there is, quite literally, a life-and-death demand for transparent and authentic assessments of policy outcomes. The burden of scrutinising policy falls as much on the casual observer of politics as it does on major political players. What I hope this illustrates above all, is the need for those who engage with politics to be rigorously critical of information pertaining to policy outcomes, and in doing so, hold policymakers to account.
- Bovens, M. Hart, P. Kuipers, S. (2009). ‘The Politics of Evaluation’ in The Oxford Handbook of Public Policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press
- Weiss, C. (1993) ‘Where Politics and Evaluation Research Meet’, Evaluation Practice, Vol.14, Issue:1. p.94
- Hogwood, B. Gunn, L. (1984) ‘Evaluation’ in Policy Analysis for the Real World. Oxford: Oxford University Press
- Loft, P. Parliament. House of Commons (2020). The Troubled Families Programme (England), Briefing Paper, Number 07585
- Hellwig, T. Samuels, D. (2008). ‘Electoral Accountability and the Variety of Democratic Regimes’, British Journal of Political Science, Vol.38, no.1. p.68
Image from: https://news.usc.edu/110124/political-polarization-at-its-worst-since-the-civil-war-2/