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Achieving Objectivity, Impartiality and Accuracy in Policy Evaluation with the Principles of Being Professional, Scientific and Open


By Li Wei

Research Report Vol.17 No.4, 2015

I. Increasingly Important Role of Public Policy Evaluation in Governance Modernization

There is no agreement on the accurate definition of public policy evaluation so far. According to our understanding, public policy evaluation is a series of appraisal and judgment activities of policy system, process, quality and effect of policy implementation based on certain criteria and procedures. Its aim is to improve public policy system, make public policy more scientific and practical, and facilitate the successful realization of the policy objectives.

In the early 20th century, with the development of modern scientific methods, public policy evaluation was applied worldwide in social research and policy study. Since the 1990s, some developed countries and international organizations began to implement public policy evaluation in a broad range, showing the growing importance of public policy evaluation.

First of all, public policy exercises broader and deeper impacts. Accordingly, there is also a growing demand for public policy evaluation. Since the 1990s, there has been remarkable economic growth in all countries and regions worldwide. According to the World Bank data (at constant 2005 prices), the global total economic output reached $34.4 trillion in 1995, and it increased to $56.5 trillion in 2013, representing a growth of over 60% within less than 20 years. With the remarkable growth in economic scale, public spending from governments also sees a notable rise. Public spending in social activities in OECD countries accounted for 17.5% in the GDP in 1990, while the share rose to 21.7% in 2013. China’s public spending accounted for 16.5% in its GDP in 1990, while in 2013, it rose to 24.6%. All these changes indicate the impact of public policy grows with social and economic development. A right public policy exercises more positive impacts while a wrong one exercises more negative impacts.

Second, with the increasingly complicated economic division of labor and social formation, public policy making becomes more difficult. The scientificity and effectiveness of public policy have to be achieved through evaluation. The advancement in industrialization leads to a higher level of specialization in the division of labor. And the revolution in information technology enables every corner of the world to be linked into a network. These changes enrich the range of topics on public policy. In addition to the traditional policy topics such as economic growth, social construction, regional rural-urban coordinated development, environmental governance, new policy challenges emerge successively like climate change, internet crimes, terrorism, cultural confrontation, food safety and virtual society management. Furthermore, when making public policy, it is necessary to consider more complicated factors, and there are more complex constraints to deal with. For example, historical, cultural and traditional factors should be taken into consideration, while practical circumstances in the course of development should also be taken into account. Both global and regional factors should be included. The holistic factors of the whole society as well as the specific factors of various groups should be given equal attention. Therefore, public policy cannot be made merely based on past experience and subjective judgment of the decision makers. It requires the thorough study and systemwide evaluation by professional organizations so as to make it more scientifically based.

Third, effective implementation of public policy should be achieved by means of evaluation. There is no denying the importance of making the right public policy, whereas its implementation is of more import. On many occasions, public policy fails to achieve the desired objectives not because of the policy per se. Rather, failure to effectively implement the policy is to blame. It is the administrative departments that implement the public policy. However, administrative departments always have considerable discretion within the scope of their functions and powers. They may implement the policy selectively and thus compromise the effectiveness of the policy because they may be driven by departmental and local interests. Therefore, it is necessary to include policy evaluation during the implementation of public policy so as to remove the drawbacks of selective implementation.

Fourth, public policy evaluation helps improve governance capability. Public policy evaluation is an important part in the governance system. It is also an important way to improve governance capability. Governance modernization calls for the full play of government’s role. It also calls for the active role of social organizations and individual citizens. By means of policy evaluation, all participants engaged in governance will have opportunities to fully express their views, communicate and coordinate effectively so as to balance different interests, remove disputes and form joint force for governance. In the meanwhile, policy evaluation can also improve the ability and professional level of policy makers and those who implement the policy.

II. Remarkable and Unique Advantages of Government Think Tanks in Policy Evaluation

The diversity and variety of public policy as well as the complexity of the interests involved in the policy determines the diversity of the agents in policy evaluation. Evaluation organizations include not only governmental departments, legislative and judicial organs, but also all sorts of think tanks, social organizations and mass media, etc. Among them, government think tanks, as a kind of special institutions, boasting many advantages, should play a more important role in policy evaluation.

First, because of its closeness to decision makers and also independence from other governmental departments, government think tanks have the advantages in having access to complete information and also being objective. Compared with other think tanks, government think tanks can better understand the intents and process of policy making, especially understand the deliberation and weighing of the factors in the process of policy making. Compared with governmental departments, government think tanks neither make the policy, nor shoulder the responsibility of implementing the policy. As the third party evaluation agencies authorized by the central government or comprehensive administrative departments, government think tanks are not only able to be detached from policy making and implementation, but also are not involved in specific business. They can analyze the problems and evaluate the policy from the overall and strategic perspectives. These advantages enable them to do policy evaluation more objectively.

Second, entrusted by the state, funded by the public finance, evaluation done by government think tanks are better reflective of social responsibility and objectivity. Being a complicated work involving many aspects, policy evaluation requires complicated process of analysis, study and evaluation, which demands for funding support. In evaluation practice, where the fund comes from usually affects the objectivity of evaluation. Non-government think tanks always face the dilemma of insufficient funding and being objective. For example, in 2014, New York Times published a series of reports by Brooks Williams, an American scholar, about think tank transparency. The reports showed that more than 10 important research institutes in Washington, DC of the US, including Brookings Institution, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Atlantic Council, accepted over $10 million from foreign governments in recent years. These donations make once-independent-and-objective think tanks become the lobbyists for the donors. Compared with private think tanks, government think tanks, entrusted by the state, unrelated with the evaluated projects in terms of interest, and stably funded by the public finance, have a stronger sense of responsibility of serving the state interest. They are less likely to be influenced by the interest groups and can maintain the objectivity of evaluation.

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