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The silver bullet reversed: the impact of evidence on policymaker attention

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Background: Despite the growing attention given to the political process of evidence-based policymaking (EBPM), we still know little about how evidence is processed at the early stages of the policymaking process, especially at the agenda-setting stage. Whether and when political elites pay attention to evidence-based information is crucial to the study of EBPM but also essential to the well-functioning of democracy.

Aims and Objectives: The aim of this paper is to cover this gap, by asking whether evidence increases policymaker attention to policy proposals. The working hypothesis is that everything else being constant, evidence should increase policy-maker attention.

Methods: To test this hypothesis, this paper relies on a field experiment embedded in a real-life fundraising campaign of an advocacy organisation targeted at the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). The field experiment is embedded in a real-life fundraising campaign of an advocacy organisation targeted at the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs).

Findings: Results show that information type matters to policy-maker attention, but evidence is not effective in this respect. Findings also suggest that there are no important differences between political groups and, crucially, that previous policy support does not have an impact on policy-maker attention. This paper shows that that while evidence is essential to the policy process, ideas are key to attract policymakers’ attention at the individual level in the absence of prior demand.

Discussion and Conclusion: Overall, findings suggest that empirical information is not a quick pass for policy-maker attention. In this context, other types of information and framing are likely to make a difference. Future studies should analyse how framing may alter political elites’ predisposition to attend empirical evidence.


Key messages
  • This paper adds to the literature on evidence-based policymaking by looking at how policymakers react to evidence in the absence of prior demand

  • To assess the causal impact of evidence, a field experiment is employed, also increasing the external validity of findings

  • Results suggest that political elites pay more attention to ideas rather than evidence-based information

  • Findings show that this also applies across political groups and previous policy support
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Keywords: evidence; experiments; information processing; political elites

Affiliations: University of Barcelona and IBEI, Spain

Appeared or available online: November 3, 2020

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