The Political Use of Evidence and Its Contribution to Democratic Discourse

Date01 July 2018
Published date01 July 2018
The Political Use of Evidence and Its Contribution to Democratic Discourse 645
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 78, Iss. 4, pp. 645–649. © 2018 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12923.
Fritz Sager is professor of political
science and member of the Executive Board
of the KPM Center for Public Management
at the University of Bern and served as
dean of the university’s Faculty of Business,
Economics, and Social Sciences until 2018.
He specializes in administrative studies
and theory, policy research and evaluation,
organizational analysis, and Swiss politics.
Iris Stucki is deputy head of the Federal
Office for the Equality of People with
Disabilities in Switzerland. She received
her PhD in public administration for her
dissertation on the use of evidence in direct
democracy. Her interests cover evidence-
based policy making and voting behavior.
She is the winner of the Evidence & Policy
Carol Weiss Prize 2017.
Caroline Schlaufer is professor in the
Public Policy Department of the Higher
School of Economics, Moscow. Her research
interests focus on using evidence in policy
making, policy narratives, policy transfer,
and public policy in non-Western societies.
The Political Use of Evidence and Its Contribution to
Democratic Discourse
Abstract: This article argues that evidence, even when used politically, contributes to high-quality democratic
discourse. Research results on the use of evidence in referendum campaigns in Switzerland show that (1) evidence
fosters discourse quality and shifts the focus away from politics to policy; (2) evaluations and basic research contrib-
ute positively to discourse, but not opinion surveys and statistics; (3) the participation of experts and administrative
practitioners in discourse is crucial to make evidence available to the public; and (4) evidence is always used as a part
of a narrative and can alter the constructed images used in a story. In conclusion, the implications for practitioners
are discussed.
growing body of literature describes how
scientific evidence is used in policy making.
This scholarship on evidence-based policy
making mostly focuses on how evidence is used
instrumentally to improve policy and dismisses the
use of evidence to support a political position as
an unfortunate politicization of science (Boswell
2014, 346; Knorr 1977). In democratic campaigns,
however, scientific evidence is mostly used politically.
That means that politicians, interest groups, and
governments select those findings that support their
position and interpret evidence in accordance with
their political conviction (Boswell 2009; Shulock
1999). This article assembles the results of a multiyear
research project on the political use of scientific
evidence in referendum campaigns in Switzerland
(Sager 2017; Schlaufer 2016a, 2016b, 2016c;
Stucki 2016a, 2016b, 2017; Stucki and Schlaufer
2017).1 Based on these results, the article argues that
using scientific evidence politically contributes to
democratic discourse in several ways. More precisely,
this article examines four questions: (1) How does
the political use of evidence contribute to democratic
discourse? (2) What evidence contributes most
to democratic discourse? (3) Who uses evidence
politically in democratic campaigns? (4) How is
evidence used politically?
The article proceeds as follows: The next section
details the theoretical approaches employed to
examine the political use of evidence. Then, the
methodological approach of the research project on
the political use of evidence in Swiss referendum
campaigns is introduced. The results section follows
the research questions and presents a summary of
already published work of the authors as well as
unpublished overarching data from the research
project. Finally, the findings and their practical
implications for administrative practitioners are
The Political Use of Evidence
The traditional scholarship on research utilization
(e.g., Weiss 1979) and the more recent literature on
evidence-based policy making (e.g., Davies, Nutley,
and Smith 2000; Isett, Head, and VanLandingham
2016; Sager 2007) focus almost exclusively on
how evidence is used instrumentally in the policy-
making process to improve policy. The political
use of scientific evidence to justify and legitimize
a predetermined position is mostly disregarded.
However, scientific evidence arguably is used much
more frequently for political than for instrumental
purposes (Newman 2017). Furthermore, it is now
widely recognized in the evidence-based policy
making literature that policy making is not a
rational process in which evidence directly influences
policy but rather an inherently political process
of argumentation and persuasion (Cairney 2016;
Newman 2017; Parkhurst 2017; Rissi and Sager
2013). Nonetheless, empirical analyses on the political
use of evidence are scarce (for exceptions, see Boswell
2009; Shulock 1999).
The analysis of the political use of evidence in Swiss
referendum campaigns builds on a deliberative
approach that focuses on the discursive processes
leading to public policy decisions (Majone 1989;
Pearce, Wesselink, and Colebatch 2014; Shulock
1999; Wesselink, Colebatch, and Pearce 2014). In
Caroline Schlaufer
Higher School of Economics, Moscow
Iris Stucki
University of Bern
Fritz Sager
University of Bern Viewpoint
Stephen E. Condrey,
Associate Editor

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