Social policy and evidence-based policymaking in Hong Kong

Appeared in Sing Tao Daily (in Chinese).

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“Evidence-based policymaking” refers to situations in which policymakers inform their choices on how to reform public policies by carefully considering the empirical evidence produced by the academic community, NGOs, think tanks, and other stakeholders. It describes a policymaking model in which leaders carefully weigh the available evidence—e.g. on what should be considered a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ policy to enhance the well-being of Hong Kong people—without cherry-picking or being influenced by any preconceived assumptions or deeply-held personal beliefs.

However, proponents of evidence-based practice concede that a crucial question is what should be considered as “good practice” in regards to the production of empirical evidence. Admittedly, policymaking that is based on incomplete or incorrect data may potentially do more harm than good. This issue goes much deeper than contemporary concerns about the fidelity of information offered on social media and is right at the heart of the necessity to preserve and extend research excellence in the Applied Social Sciences.

Indeed, to raise the profile of academic disciplines such as Sociology, Economics and Psychology among policymakers and within our public policy discourse, efforts are needed to counter the narrative distinction between the so-called “hard” and “soft” sciences. Too often, the findings of research in the Applied Social Sciences are still being brushed aside by policymakers as not being rigorous, reliable, or transparent enough to incentivise a significant change of policy direction or to warrant a large-scale public investment.

As an academic field of inquiry that is similarly overlooked by policymakers in Hong Kong, Social Policy does not tend to dwell on scientific methods in depicting how it can better facilitate evidence-based policymaking. Instead, its teachers and students tend to be much more comfortable in underling the particular subject of study, such as the institutions of social welfare and the co-production of social outcomes, its dominant concepts, such as need, poverty, health, inclusion, and well-being, or its historical identity as a separate subject containing distinctive journals, discourses, skills and knowledge.

Precisely because of the extensive experience of analysing critical contemporary social problems, it is Social Policy that has something to contribute to policymaking in our current challenging times.

Social science enquiry devoted to social welfare began back in the 19th century. The data for these early Social Policy studies were derived initially from administrative sources, such as by the 1832 Poor Law Commissioners in the United Kingdom, and then later by population data collected in the census and through the registration of births, deaths and marriages, for example for the Sanitary Inquiries by Edwin Chadwick in 1842. Similarly, Henry Mayhew’s journalistic case studies gave way by the end of the 19th century to surveys of the population, for example in Charles Booth’s extensive studies of the London poor and the more systematic study of the poor by Seebohm Rowntree in York in 1899. The Liberal reforms of the early 20th century, which represented the emergence of the modern welfare state in the United Kingdom were also based on administrative and survey data.

After WW2, when Social Policy grew as an academic subject, the quantitative empirical tradition continued. The data available to scholars have advanced steadily with the development of extensive government surveys and the growing academic Social Policy community, including those working in and exclusively on social issues in Hong Kong. To this day, the leading centres of Social Policy research locally, nationally, and internationally are engaged in state-of-the-art survey research or the secondary analysis of administrative data.

Thereby, the use of quantitative methods has changed enormously as a result of computers, analytical software and learning from a range of other more mathematical orientated disciplines. Social Policy research design have become more longitudinal, comparative, and even experimental, while the scope of analysis has become increasingly more sophisticated.

Naturally, there have always been distinguished historians working in Social Policy too. Sociologists have applied constructionist and interpretative methods to the field of social welfare research, and there has been a noticeable resurgence of historical case study methods using process tracing and other small-N multi-source methods. Qualitative methods, such as semi-structured interviews, observation and focus groups, are all employed in Social Policy analysis, often but not exclusively as precursors to the collection and analysis of quantitative data.

Governments all around the globe have sought innovative solutions to respond to the challenges inherent in globalisation and the rapid changes of contemporary social structures. Evidence-based practice can be instrumental in enhancing public trust in political institutions, which have been under intense pressure in Hong Kong.

In short, there has never been a better time for policymakers to listen carefully to what the Social Policy community has to contribute. Due to its rich experience in analysing contemporary social issues through the most rigorous scientific methods, Social Policy deserves more attention by leaders engaging in evidence-based policymaking.

At the same time, this also means that Social Policy researchers have to more readily embrace their role as contributors to the well-being of people and many sectors of society. This requires a willingness to put more thought into planning knowledge transfer activities that allow them to engage more diverse audiences and ultimately to generate concrete policy impact on the basis of their state-of-the-art research findings.