Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Will Voters Support Lawmakers Who Support Evidence-Based Health Policy? Results from Survey Experiments

Thursday, November 12, 2015 : 1:45 PM
President's Room (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Eric Patashnik, University of Virginia, Alan S. Gerber, Yale University and Conor Dowling, University of Mississippi
If evidence-based policy making is to have a transformative and durable impact on the federal government, it needs the support of Congress.  But using evidence to identify problems and craft solutions may be quite risky for the typical legislator.  After all, evidence sometimes challenges conventional wisdom and the authority of elite actors.  And policy changes made on the basis of evidence can even threaten the incomes of powerful constituency groups.   Will voters reward or punish members of Congress who support the increased use of evidence in the policy process?  When the conclusions of research and the views of powerful groups conflict, what happens when lawmakers come out in favor of the research?  To address these questions, we conducted a series of national public opinion surveys.  In one survey, we conducted experiments in which respondents read vignettes about controversies regarding the use of scientific evidence on the effectiveness of medical treatments.   We randomly assigned respondents to conditions in which the lawmaker either supported or opposed research findings and either supported or opposed the positions of medical societies who in turn took varying positions on whether the research findings should be followed or ignored.  These experiments show that it is very risky for a member of Congress to support research findings that are opposed by a trusted group like doctors; public support for the lawmaker who endorses the research findings falls. We also asked respondents about their suport for varrious ways that legislators can approach policy-making, and found that voters are fairly skeptical if members do anything except represent district concerns.  Our survey results show that members of Congress can pay a heavy reputational price if they take policy stands on the basis of evidence which are not backed by voters' preferences or grounded in common sense. If evidence-based policy making is to be more than a flash in the pan, more attention needs to be given to its alignment with the incentives of Congress and the expectations and behavior of voters.