Fostering Evidence-informed Policy Making: Uncertainty Versus Ambiguity

This briefing note, by Paul Cairney of the University of Stirling, presents the importance of distinguishing between uncertainty and ambiguity in the strategies aimed to develop evidence-informed policy making.

Policy studies often distinguish between uncertainty, defined as a lack of knowledge about a policy problem or its solution, and ambiguity, defined as the potential to produce more than one interpretation of a problem. With this in mind, reducing uncertainty can be thought of as a technical process for addressing an already well-defined policy problem: supplying the best evidence and delivering it to the right people at the right time. Reducing ambiguity can be thought of as a political process: exercising power to define a policy problem and prompting a demand for evidence.

The distinction has major implications for anyone seeking to influence policy makers and form coalitions with influential actors. In this paper, we highlight some of these implications for public health actors who wish to support the creation of healthier public policies.

To learn more, visit the website of the National Collaborating Centre for Healthy Public Policy - NCCHPP (

Fostering Evidence-informed Policy Making: Uncertainty Versus Ambiguity



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