On the importance of data for evidence-based policy making

This is a slight diversion from the cafe focus of this blog, but relates to wider issues that are important in my research activities, and in terms of the development of high streets are retail may have some relevant insights. This week in Brussels over 1500 delegates from across the EU and beyond gathered as part of European Unions’ 13th European Week of Regions and Cities – ‘Open Days’ – a programme of events to discuss issues at the heart of European development, and to celebrate the achievements of many EU regions and cities.

Image credit: Flickr - Open Days: European Week of Cities and Regions

Image credit: Flickr

While the topics discussed were wide ranging, from building resilience, SME support,  innovation, the bioeconomy, urban-rural integration and labour market challenges to the silver economy, a recurring issue in many sessions was the importance of ‘good’ data, how to ensure high quality relevant data reaches policy makers, and ultimately how data can be used to inform policy. One session in particular, ‘Evidence-based employment policies: what works for regions’, organised by the German consultancy firm, GIZ, raised a number of important considerations related to data and evidence to inform policy.

Four presentations explored the experiences of employment policies in different regions setting the scene for discussion of good practices for evidence based policy making. First from Germany the case of North Rhine Westphalia, a region adapting to industrial change showcased the importance of building trust with stakeholders via steering boards and regional agencies in order to facilitate joint decision making in the formation and implementation of labour market policies. Second from the Veneto region in Italy, home to a large number of small manufacturing businesses the importance of the including the views and experiences of businesses in order to generate labour policies. Third, the challenges of dealing with labour markets that span across international, linguistic and monetary boundaries were examined via the experiences of Saar-Lor-Lux in the Netherlands, highlighting the importance of thinking beyond boundaries. Finally, taking a European regional perspective, insights from trend analysis for EU labour markets stressed the importance of trying to understand the potential impact of ageing populations that will affect all European nations and the importance of looking to the future in research and analysis. All the presentations stressed the importance of using data as evidence, but there are a multitude of issues around the use of data to inform policy.

Image credit: Flickr Open Days - European Week of Cities and Regions

Image credit: Flickr Open Days – European Week of Cities and Regions

  1. There needs to be a diversity of data sources utilised. In order to generate a more complete understanding of issues affecting local and regional economies policy makers need to use a variety of data sources The EU produces a wealth of data, much of which is distributed on Eurostat, but in order to understand the intricacies and complexities of issues at the local level, other data sources are needed to reflect the interests and experiences of different stakeholder groups involved; this could be the needs of businesses, the training deficits affecting young people, or the shortage of workers in a particular sector. In order to design policies suitable for particular issues in particular places, policy makers need more than numbers as evidence. Evidence also needs to be based in experiences,
  2. Contextualisation of data is important. Each data set can tell a story (or multiple stories), and in order to generate a more complete picture of key issues at hand it is important that data of different types are used to create a holistic understanding of each phenomenon. This points to the importance of mixed methods research bringing together quantitative, often large scale data sets, with qualitative data gathered from on the ground from the people that policy is targeting. This of course raises challenges about how data sets are collected, synthesised and interpreted.
  3. Trust and dialogue between stakeholders is crucial. In order to gather, select and interpret suitable data for particular challenges to generate appropriate solutions it is important that stakeholders groups engage in relationships built on trust. A key point that was raised here is that these relationships between stakeholders (including government at different scales, business, academics, the public) takes time. The discussion highlights that this is something that needs investment and commitment from all those who wish to impact the policies that are generated.
  4. There needs to be political will utilise the data appropriately. The demands on policy makers are constantly changing as the world around them shifts and alters on a daily basis. While the demands for data to support decision making can at times be challenging, particularly when required in a short time frame, it is important the politicians drawing on data analysis do some from a range of sources, in order to use a framework of evidence to support their policy making.
  5. Recognition from business and the public on the importance of contributing to knowledge creation. In order to formulate effective and appropriate policy solutions to societal challenges, policy makers need information that represents the interests of those the policy is designed to impact. In the case of labour markets, understanding the needs of businesses, but also of workers, at a local level can be a crucial step in creating suitable interventions to address labour market change in that locality. This can only be achieved if people are willing to share their experiences.

While the points raised in this session were generated with a focus on labour markets there is clear scope for these to be relevant for other policy spheres. As with all good panel discussions, more questions were raised than were addressed. How can we ensure a variety of data sets are produced? Who will collect the different data sets? What methodologies will be used, and who will ensure they are understood by those interpreting the results? Who can collate suitable data and translate the data into meaningful analysis that can be used in policy making (the issue of knowledge brokers was also raised in a session in ‘Creating links between academics and policy makers’)? How can we ensure that data is enriched with the stories of real people, real places and real challenges? From an academic perspective there is clearly a role for academics to draw on both quantitative and qualitative methodologies to generate, utilise and  synthesise data as well as and communicate findings around issues at the heart of local, regional and national economies. In order to ensure that academic research is used by policy makers, strategic dialogue between different groups of stakeholders is likely to remain important to include the perspectives of businesses, local and regional governments, civil society organisations and others to form a more enriched policy making practice that can have a positive impact on the real lives of real people in real places.

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