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Greater effort must be put into differentiating high-quality evidence from substandard evidence when evaluating public policy in Australia, according to new research by the University of Melbourne.

The report, What Is Evidence-Based Policy? by Professor Paul Jensen , analyses the methods and techniques that Australian officials use to evaluate the success of policy responses.

Professor Jensen said the current federal election provides a perfect backdrop for a serious dissection of how policies are created.

“Around election time, politicians often call on the need for more ‘evidence-based policy’,” he said.

“This message is simple, but the importance of being able to distinguish strong evidence from weak evidence is often forgotten.”

The report finds there is no “silver bullet” in policy evaluation, and notes public servants are often divided on the best methods of assessment.

Most methods of policy assessment face ethical hurdles or statistical complications, the report warns, and policy appraisals undertaken in one part of the world are not always applicable to Australia.

The research — published as part of the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research’s Policy Brief series — identifies four ways improve policy formulation in Australia:

        • Policy makers should be given greater access to unit record data, particularly firm level data. (This would require a renewed effort by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.)
        • Authorities should devote more resources to designing policy evaluation programs before a policy is implemented.
        • Government agencies should increase their capacity to undertake policy evaluation. 
        • Public agencies should develop stronger links with academics in order to promote best-practice evaluation methodologies.

Despite the inherent flaws in all of the available policy evaluation methods, Professor Jensen maintains they're still better than the alternative — blind doctrine.

“The ultimate objective of ‘evidence-based’ policy is to use actual evidence on what works – rather than relying on simple ideology," he said.

"Only this way will good policies survive as bad policies are killed off."