The role of evidence and the expert in contemporary processes of governance: the case of opioid substitution treatment policy in England

Int J Drug Policy. 2014 Sep;25(5):964-71. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2014.01.015. Epub 2014 Jan 31.


Background: This paper is based on research examining stakeholder involvement in substitution treatment policy which was undertaken as part of the EU funded FP7 ALICE-RAP (Addictions and Lifestyles in Contemporary Europe - Reframing Addictions Project). In England, the research coincided with a policy shift towards a recovery orientated drug treatment framework and a heated debate surrounding the role of substitute prescribing. The study aimed to explore the various influences on the development of the new 'recovery' policy from the perspectives of the key stakeholders involved.

Methods: The paper is based on documentary analyses and key informant interviews with a range of stakeholders, including representatives of user organisations, treatment providers, civil servants, and members of expert committees.

Results: Drawing on the theoretical insights offered by Backstrand's 'civic science' framework, the changing role of evidence and the position of experts in the processes of drugs policy governance are explored. 'Evidence' was used to problematise the issue of substitution treatment and employed to legitimise, justify and construct arguments around the possible directions of policy and practice. Conflicting beliefs about drug treatment and about motivation for policy change emerge in the argumentation, illustrating tensions in the governance of drug treatment and the power differentials separating different groups of stakeholders. Their role in the production of evidence also illustrates issues of power regarding the definition and development of 'usable knowledge'. There were various attempts at greater representation of different forms of evidence and participation by a wider group of stakeholders in the debates surrounding substitution treatment. However, key national and international experts and the appointment of specialist committees continued to play dominant roles in building consensus and translating scientific evidence into policy discourse.

Conclusion: Substitution treatment policy has witnessed a challenge to the dominance of 'scientific evidence' within policy decision making, but in the absence of alternative evidence with an acceptable credibility and legitimacy base, traditional notions of what constitutes evidence based policy persist and there is a continuing lack of recognition of 'civic science'.

Keywords: Evidence; Experts; Governance; Opioid substitution treatment; Science; Stakeholders.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Decision Making
  • England
  • Evidence-Based Medicine
  • Government
  • Health Policy*
  • Humans
  • Opiate Substitution Treatment / methods*
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / drug therapy*
  • Policy Making