New trends in the relationship between knowledge and policy

Research into the role of knowledge in health and education policy across Europe identified new trends in the intricate relationship between knowledge and policy. Highlighting that knowledge is socially embedded and constructed, the KNOWandPOL research project found three significant trends: increasingly diverse flows of knowledge, a growing emphasis on using knowledge to inform policy and a wider use of comparisons, best-practice and experience-based knowledge. These trends have a number of policy implications, for example, policy makers should not lose sight of the local context and should consider how to include local, or non-expert, knowledge when formulating policy.

The collection and application of different types of information, data and knowledge is becoming increasingly common in both the private and public sectors. In the political world, evidence-based research is an everyday term and Europe is aiming to become a global leader in the knowledge economy. Ironically, one of the valued qualities of information is its objectivity, but this can neglect the importance of context both in terms of the creation of knowledge and its application to policy. Both the users and the producers of knowledge influence how it informs policy.

The KNOWandPOL project has analysed the relationship between knowledge and policy in two sectors (education and health) and in eight countries (Germany, Belgium, France, Hungary, Norway, Portugal, Romania and the United Kingdom). It has done this in three parts: firstly, through a comparative analysis of the structure of the two sectors across several countries; secondly, by analysing the existing decision-making processes with a focus on the use of information and thirdly, by studying the increasing number of instruments that require the production and dissemination of information.

The relationship between knowledge and policy is constantly developing but in most countries three general trends have been observed:

  • Knowledge flows - The knowledge acquired by countries, sectors and organisations is coming from an increasingly diverse range of sources, many of which are external. This is being facilitated by access to knowledge through the development of networks and also the role of supranational or international organisations such as the EU, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) that all support knowledge exchange.

    Interestingly, supranational organisations appear more influential than European ones, which may be due to the dominance of North American models of evaluation and benchmarking. The WHO’s Mental Health Declaration and Action Plan for Europe1 is a good example of a successful supranational knowledge initiative. It produced a study on the mental health systems in WHO European countries and held various conferences and consultations on this topic. One of the main contributions to its effectiveness lies in its capacity to bring actors and knowledge together.
  • Knowledge-intensive policy - Organisations and governments are increasingly mobilising knowledge to inform policy. Indicators, evaluations, audits, best practices and evidence-based practices, etc. are on the increase. This is linked to the need to be transparent and accountable to the public and also to the need to convince people that a certain policy will have its expected impact. In addition, policy tools based on knowledge are often developed to be used by those who have no legal or financial means of intervention and, therefore, must rely on knowledge as their main means of action. This is the case for supranational organisations with less possibility for legal enforcement.

    The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)2 is a good example of this, whereby creating tools to assess students on essential knowledge and skills encourages some standardisation of acceptable education across Europe without enforcing it. These instruments of regulation are often known as ‘soft-governance’.
  • Comparisons, best-practices and experience-based knowledge - There has been an increasing use of all types of knowledge in decision-making but the development of comparisons, best-practices and experience-based knowledge are particularly noticeable. Indicators and comparisons allow communities to compare their situation to previous times and other communities. They are primarily mobilised to help place issues on the agenda but their impact relies on the ability of designers to demonstrate that indicators are reliable and relevant. They often identify communities or groups in need, which in turn can give rise to the importation of best practices.

    Best practices aim to show others what they could be doing and how to do it. To be influential they should be properly presented and formulated in a clear and attractive way. Finally, experience-based knowledge differs from technical knowledge in that it is explicitly subjective and tends to use stories and anecdotes. It often serves to prepare policy for implementation by contextualising more technical knowledge and offering suggestions on how policy can be best put into place.

Having identified these global trends, the project stresses that they are not occurring in the same way in each sector and country. Both countries and sectors will respond differently, depending on their existing policy and knowledge regimes. For example, in France and Germany, where professionals are relatively powerful, the effectiveness of an assessment must be demonstrated before it is implemented. However, in Romania, which has inherited a policy regime of state power, even knowledge produced by international organisations can be manipulated for political purposes.

Based on the findings to-date, the KNOWandPOL researchers have identified several policy implications:

  • Context is important. Local actors are not ‘empty vessels’ that merely receive knowledge, but they also shape it. To understand how a community relates to knowledge there needs to be a clear understanding of the community and their interactions with others.

  • Local or lay knowledge should not be dismissed. It is an important source of information and it influences implementation. This has been demonstrated in several mental health policies where engagement with service users has been highly useful in policy formation.

  • Comparisons and ranking can hide or miss certain information. With globalisation, knowledge-based interactions and comparisons between countries are more common. However, these face the risk of missing more local or specific information and potentially applying inappropriate policy solutions.

  • Inevitably knowledge is influenced by how it came into being, i.e. the means by which it is has been supported or funded. Even if it is scientific, knowledge belongs to a community. Most social science research is dominated by English-speaking industrial countries, which may lead to biases and should be challenged. The funding and promoting of research should seek to encourage greater diversity in the sources of knowledge.

  • The reliance of policy on knowledge has undoubtedly tightened the relationships between policy makers and researchers. This is evidenced in PISA, which has penetrated all the countries studied as a policy tool and strengthened the relationship between knowledge and policy. However, the more policy makers develop evidence-based policy and commission research, the more expectations may be placed on researchers which eventually may change their role from objective observer to something different. Researchers may need training in order to deal with these demands and preserve some of their autonomy.


1 See:

2 See:,3417,en_32252351_32235731_1_1_1_1_1,00.html

KNOWandPOL – The role of knowledge in the construction and regulation of health and education policy in Europe: convergences and specificities among nations and sectors (duration: 1/10/2006 – 30/9/2011) is an Integrated Project funded under the 6th Framework Programme for Research of the European Community, Thematic Priority 7 – Citizens and governance in a knowledge-based society.



Contact: Bernard Delvaux,; Eric Mangez,