Evidence-Based Policy-Making: The Elusive Search for Rational Public Administration

Adrian Kay

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Evidence-based policy making has been criticised as a revival of the ‘rationality project’ in which democratic politics is regarded as rent-seeking and a deadweight loss to society. In response, the evidence-based policy movement has failed to articulate a defence in which the rationality animating the policy process is situational and contextual rather than unique and authoritative. This article traces the movement's motto –‘what works?’– to the American pragmatist movement, whose influence on Harold Lasswell and New Labour in the UK was substantial. This article argues that the ambition for evidence-based policy-making should be seen in terms of the transition from a single, unique and universal rationality toward multiple rationalities that vary according to different policy making contexts. Interpreted in such terms, evidence-based policy making can avoid several of the main criticisms, and offer strong potential to contribute to solving policy problems.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)236-245
Number of pages6
JournalAustralian Journal of Public Administration
Issue number3
Early online date17 Oct 2011
Publication statusPublished - 2011


  • evidence-based policy
  • rationalities
  • implications for policy makers


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