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  • Leandro Echt and Vanesa Weyrauch

Conceptual framework for how public institutions generate and use knowledge /Culture 1

Updated: Apr 15, 2021

[Editor’s note: This post is part a series produced by Vanesa Weyrauch and Leandro Echt from Politics&Ideas to present the conceptual framework and its implications developed under the project “Going beyond ‘Context matters”, supported by the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP).]

Culture is undeniable a very important dimension of context when analyzing the interaction between knowledge and policy. Composed by intangible and many times invisible forces, we frequently underestimate its influence: projects to foster the use of research in policy frequently take a technical approach that leaves key drivers of change out of the room, and thus are doomed to fail or die very soon after. Culture is a dimension too often underestimated or ignored.

In our knowledge systematization effort, we adopt Schein’s definition of culture as: “A pattern of shared basic assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems” (2004: 17)

This culture (at individual, team and organizational levels of any public institution) creates the daily context for practice. Unlike management formal processes, culture expresses what people believe the organization wants to see happen. When individuals join an organization, besides learning about its formal aspects, they spend much of their time being socialized into the “informal organization,” namely, the culture. It takes time to absorb this organizational culture, as it generally cannot be spelled out in a written document or directive.

Courtesy of Dave Gray at under CC

Courtesy of Dave Gray at under CC

This makes designing and implementing efforts to embed the use of knowledge in decision-making and implementation much more complex. It is not an aspect that can be managed with a plan, for certain.

Furthermore, heterogeneity among public servants is the prevailing rule and this explains the difficulty of their interactions with third parties which are also consequently different and sometimes even opposed.

There are four key sub-dimensions that make up organizational culture and each affects behaviours and attitudes around how – and if – research is used to inform policy. These are: beliefs and values openness to change, incentives and motivations. We will explore the two first in this post and the latter in the upcoming one.

Beliefs and values

The way in which the policymakers update their beliefs influences the way in which they receive evidence. According to Gal and Rucker (2010) counter-intuitively, when subjects’ belief systems are confronted with evidence contrary to their beliefs, become more prone to forcefully advocate in favour of their original thinking.

Beliefs and values play a crucial role at two levels: (1) how evidence/ knowledge and its conveyor is listened to or not according to the policymakers’ existing set of values related to the specific policy issue (e.g. the social construction of the target group when deciding how to help drug addicts will set the tone for the consideration of research on policies addressed to this group); and (2) the overall appreciation within the organization of the role of knowledge in informing decisions (which is also influenced by the social appreciation of science as noted among the macro-contextual factors).

In terms of this first level, we need to acknowledge the weight given to prevailing narratives and discourses on a specific policy issue. These, along with societal norms, can lead to policymakers’ reluctance to acknowledge an issue because it is stigmatized by prevailing societal norms and values implied in these narratives (often this is due to cultural or religious beliefs. Political party ideology plays an important role in which of these beliefs and values are defended. Consequently, its leadership can produce a significant cultural change within government institutions.

Regarding the second level, it is important to also consider the extent to which an institution “values” evidence. There are agencies that, due to tradition, the will of politicians involved in their operation, or personnel characteristics, have developed a higher preference for processes that allow for a more efficient information management – from its creation to its use, and including processing and communication.

On the contrary, the collection and appraisal of research is in some settings regarded as “non-work” amongst those who have needed to appear to be taking action. Indeed, an organizational culture of doing can become a barrier; enabling staff to undertake and familiarize themselves with research would require more balance between thinking and doing.

Openness to change

Related to the values above, but worth highlighting separately, is how an organizational culture may enable critical inquiry, curiosity, and support risk-taking and innovation.

Bureaucratic logic often prevails: bureaucrats reinforce the idea that everything is fine (“It has always been done this way”), and that there is no need for change or innovation (there is often significant interest in maintaining the status quo, which benefits a specific group of stakeholders. This gives preference to existing frameworks in understanding policy problems and, therefore, favours only evidence confirming the efficiency of current practices.

The political economy of change must not be underestimated. Does the organization have a sufficiently flexible structure to enable the development of new groups or units, which will be effective in seeing through a policy change?

Last but not least, openness to change is closely linked to a government’s willingness to admit failure. This is particularly relevant for evidence arising from M&E efforts. It is also related to the overall culture of critical thinking. Naturally, this entails careful management of open instances for genuine reflection and self-criticism, so that they do not completely erode decision-making and implementation processes but facilitate clear areas for enhancement and/or reform.

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