Lived experience and research: Complementary or competitors in the policy process?

While lip service is frequently paid to the importance of incorporating research evidence and lived experience into the policymaking process, examples of this being done effectively are few and far between. APO Director, Brigid van Wanrooy, explains why she chose this topic for APO’s 20th anniversary event and how there was consensus among the diverse panel of speakers that policy decisions need to draw on a wide range of evidence.

Photo of a microphone.
Photo by Bogomil Mihaylov on Unsplash

It’s just not happening

In the last decade or so there has been more discussion about the role of lived experience in the design of programs, services, and policy. Despite this, there doesn’t seem to have been any notable examples where people’s experiences are at the centre of decisions that impact them. This is demonstrated by the lived experience accounts heard in various Royal Commissions over the years, whether it be personal accounts of family violence, aged care, state care, or abuse.

Evidence-based (or evidence-informed) policy has been advocated and attempted for much longer. Despite this, governments are still struggling to deal with the multitude of barriers to applying research evidence in the policy process. 

The advocacy of using lived experience and evidence to inform decision-making appear to have occurred in parallel with very little discussion about how they both can be incorporated to achieve better policy development, implementation, and outcomes together.

In my experience working in social policy and services, lived experience and research evidence seemed to be pitted against each other. Advocates would argue lived experience needed to be the priority over and above a rigorous study of ‘what worked’. I always found this perplexing, as it is extremely difficult for a program or service to elicit positive outcomes for a participant if their experience of that program is a negative one. 

That’s not to say there wouldn’t be room for improvements that could be identified through understanding participants’ experience – but both types of evidence would be complementary, rather than competing. 

So there’s a need for more conversations about how advocates for lived experience and research evidence can work together to improve outcomes through better informed policy- and decision-making. 

All types of evidence

It was fantastic to have a diverse range of speakers at APO’s 20th Anniversary event discussing how policy can be ‘democratised’ by better incorporating research evidence and lived experience into the process. 

Professor Brian Head related how early on in his career he discovered that a broader view of evidence was required. He expressed his preference for public inquiries as a useful tool for eliciting knowledge from people for whom the decisions will impact. 

Professor Jackie Leach Scully explained how the field of bioethics contributes to public policy and she sees herself as an intermediary between people with disability and policymakers. 

Roy Ah-See made a compelling case for storytelling as an important source of evidence, particularly for First Nations people. Roy also explained why he believed it was now time that First Nations people have a voice to the Australian parliament.  

Heidi Everett explained why she considers public policy to be problematic and gave an example of where lived experienced input was sought – but on the government’s terms. She also passionately argued for incorporating lived experience into policy decisions. 

Together, the panel made a compelling case for a diversity of evidence to inform policy decisions. 

Opening up the evidence

This led to a question from the audience, appearing to be convinced of the need to incorporate a range of evidence, they asked, how do you then weigh up these different inputs

There was consensus that trying to weight different sources of evidence was the wrong way to go about it. Instead, Professor Head advised that the process needed to be driven by an agreed sense of purpose which will then reveal the types of evidence required and the method for testing ideas. There is also a need for understanding what the “different kinds of evidence can offer” added Professor Leach Scully. And while lived experience can give unique insight, it shouldn’t be devoid of appraisal. 

The overriding message was, I’m afraid dear reader, that good policy is not easy.

But APO can help. Professor Peter Shergold began and ended the session emphasising the importance of having access to these diverse forms of evidence and information. He stressed the important role APO plays in “opening up” the evidence on complex policy problems. 

Professor Head summed it up when he said

“Having open sources of information is the best way to make sure that interests are protected, and that people have a good understanding of each other’s point of view – without which we tend to just ride roughshod over the powerless.” 

If you want to explore more about this topic go to APO’s policy subject term where you can find resources that use and discuss a variety of inputs and approaches including lived experience and evidence-based policy

All the videos linked to in this article are available on APO’s YouTube channel