POLICY AND POLITICS: ‘Scientific’ policymaking in a ‘complex’ world – what can we learn from the Finnish experience?

POLICY AND POLITICS: ‘Scientific’ policymaking in a ‘complex’ world – what can we learn from the Finnish experience?

Hanna Ylöstalo

This section of Discover Society is provided in collaboration with the journal, Policy and Politics. It is curated by Sarah Brown.


Policy solutions, interventions, and reforms revolve around specific societal diagnoses of the problems that policymaking is supposed to solve. These diagnoses are produced in a global network of various elected and non-elected policy practitioners. One of the most influential societal diagnoses informing contemporary policy reform seems to be the following: the world has become more ‘complex’, problems have become ‘wicked’, and all policy solutions involve a great deal of ‘uncertainty’. This popular, but rather vague and ahistorical notion has resulted in various new approaches to solving diverging political problems. These approaches are often legitimised by the use of scientific knowledge and methods.

Although the interest in scientific knowledge as a basis of policymaking has grown tremendously in the 2000s and resulted in various new approaches, the role of knowledge varies within policy reforms. In my recent article in Policy & Politics entitled The role of scientific knowledge in dealing with complex policy problems under conditions of uncertainty, I argue that contemporary knowledge-policy relations are characterised by profound tensions between ‘good governance’ and ‘good knowledge’. The former refers to governance as constructed in public management literature. From this perspective, governance is perceived as a practical tool, a means to systematically support policymaking in a complex world under conditions of uncertainty. The latter, good knowledge, is context-specific and connected (although not consistently) with good governance.

Strategic governance reform and the culture of experimentation in Finland
In my research, I analysed the implementation of two contemporary policy reforms in Finland, strategic governance reform and the culture of experimentation, in order to illustrate tensions between good governance and good knowledge in policy implementation. I paid specific attention to the role of knowledge in these reforms as well as to their explicit attempt to deal with complex problems under conditions of uncertainty.

Strategic governance is a form of managerial governance. It aims to make government policymaking more strategic by, for example, narrowing down policy objectives and explicitly aligning them with fiscal objectives. A culture of experimentation is a form of experimental policy, which is a way of developing, testing, and evaluating new policies using experimental techniques. It also encompasses an experimental and entrepreneurial ethos in policymaking, grounded in scientific knowledge. Both have been implemented in Finland since the 2010s.

The evidence-based policy movement has paved the way for both reforms. Strategic governance and the culture of experimentation are represented as innovative solutions to the increasing complexity of modern societies. They both claim that the current understanding and role of scientific knowledge in policymaking under conditions of uncertainty is flawed, and suggest more or less explicitly a shift in the role of knowledge. Although they are based on almost identical societal diagnoses, they end up as different theories about the role of knowledge.

Strategic governance: political leadership under conditions of uncertainty
In Finland, both strategic governance reform and the implementation of a culture of experimentation have been implemented in response to criticism towards public governance and especially the governments’ inability to make decisions and implement them. Throughout the 2010s, this criticism has been fueled by various non-elected policy actors, such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and national think tanks. These non-elected experts do not have direct political power but can exert indirect influence through knowledge production. The OECD 2010 public governance review, for example, criticised Finnish public governance for its lack of ‘strategic agility’, that is, its inability to take ‘decisive action where necessary, as coherently as possible and in line with existing priorities and constraints’ (p. 12). The basic idea of strategic governance is that the government should have one strategic process, which is systematically supported by knowledge.

In a complex world, under conditions of uncertainty, strategic political leadership requires a particular interpretation of knowledge. In strategic governance, an excess of knowledge and messy details within policymaking processes are controlled via strategic political leadership. Such leadership rests on a selective notion of knowledge: the ability to ignore much of what is going on and to focus on what is deemed important. Making strategic decisions in a fast-moving, uncertain environment requires a combination of instinct, emotion, and knowledge — and the ability to impose decisions if required.

In strategic governance, the tensions between good governance and good knowledge result from simultaneously striving towards evidence-based and efficient policymaking. On the one hand, strategic governance is based on the conviction that political decisions should be systematically supported by knowledge. On the other hand, an excess of knowledge is seen as a burden, hampering efficient policymaking and implementation. This tension has led to the perception of good knowledge as compliant to the demands of strategic political leadership. Good knowledge must enable, not constrain, political action.

Culture of experimentation: learning by trial and error
In a similar vein to strategic governance, the movement towards evidence-based policy has paved the way for a culture of experimentation in Finland. The recent global trend towards behavioural change policies via policy experiments and techniques has been a particular source of inspiration. In the 2000s, there was a rapid surge of policy experiments that were based on psychological and behavioural sciences. In Finland, these global trends have been important for the legitimation of the culture of experimentation and they have a significant role to play in policy design. However, in actual policy experiments, these theories and methods have thus far been almost non-existent.

Although the culture of experimentation in Finland has been inspired by behavioural economics, it has been implemented as something else: a cultural change. Such change has entailed an entrepreneurial attitude towards knowledge and policymaking, including ‘a licence to fail’. An entrepreneur is the kind of person who does not know for sure what works but is prepared to act despite this. An entrepreneur is brave enough to take risks and accept the consequences of failure. In this context, knowledge is seen as incremental, and uncertainty is viewed as a fundamental element of knowledge production.

However, the managerial demand to govern more ‘efficiently’ by making political decisions and implementing them within a short electoral cycle has very low tolerance for such uncertainties. Consequently, in policy implementation, the exhausting process of incremental knowledge-production entailed in a culture of experimentation has been replaced with clear-cut, policy-relevant trials. For example, the internationally renowned basic income experiment was reduced from a set of experiments to test different basic income models to just one experiment, which ended up being a ‘disappointment’.

The implementation of a culture of experimentation involves constant negotiations between good governance and good knowledge. From the perspective of good governance, policy experiments are seen as a means to produce policy-relevant, depoliticised what-works knowledge, which is based on scientific methods. A culture of experimentation, however, also entails a conception of knowledge as processual and incremental. While such knowledge sometimes meets the demands of good governance, it sometimes does not, for example, due to the tight time frames of contemporary policymaking. On such occasions, good knowledge is bent for the purposes of good governance.

Governing in ‘a complex world’
My analysis of the two knowledge-based policy reforms in Finland, strategic governance reform and a culture of experimentation, shows that the rise of the evidence-based policymaking movement, combined with the popular conviction that the world has become more complex, has encouraged policy practitioners to justify different kinds of policy reforms using knowledge and science. Although the evidence-based policy movement has ‘scientised’ contemporary policy reforms, the role of scientific knowledge remains contested within these reforms. Both strategic governance reform and a culture of experimentation are characterised by profound tensions between good governance and good knowledge.

These tensions show that rather than being fixed, the role of scientific knowledge within policy reforms is constantly negotiated, and often constrained by governance. One does not necessarily have to exclude the another, but it depends on how governance is perceived. Within strategic governance reform and, to a lesser extent, a culture of experimentation, good governance is largely understood in line with managerial governance, as a practical tool to solve real-life problems in an increasingly complex world.

However, governance can also be seen as a political system that involves new ways of governing society. Such a notion of governance signifies a decentering of government and the creation of forums and arenas for joint policymaking. While strategic governance reform seems to be closely attached to a managerial view of governance, a culture of experimentation has, at least at the level of policy design, certain points of convergence with these more interactive and democratic forms of governance. This generates possibilities for different forms of knowledge as well as more participatory forms of knowledge production.

In order to materialise these possibilities, the relationships between knowledge, society, and policy should be seen as open, mutating, and involving interdependent actors in multiple forums and arenas — instead of perceiving the ‘world out there’ as ambiguously complex and in need of management and control. The role of political science within this process is, at least, to critically engage with the scientific discourses and practices that states are currently implementing.


Hanna Ylöstalo is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Turku. Her research interests include gendered society-economy relations as well as the role of knowledge in contemporary politics and policymaking.