• Clara Richards

Is there room for evidence? Factors affecting the use of information in policy making (part 1)

Incorporating evidence into decision making processes is not a  linear task. On the one hand, evidence coexists with other various factors involved in decision-making: contingencies, experience and expertise, lobbying, judgment, values, habits and traditions, resources; see Lee, 2004). On the other hand, and although there is a wide spectrum of politicians and officials willing to consider the evidence as part of their work, the use of information generated both by the State as from external sources is often affected by a number of factors.

During the development of the content for an upcoming online course targeted to policymakers in Latin America on the use of research in policy, we have found that when showing the challenges faced by those willing to use of evidence, the specialized literature (see for instance Sutcliffe and Court (2006), Dhaliwal y Tulloch (2011) or Liveranni et al (2013)) tend to focus on challenges coming from the context, the culture of the territory or the policy makers’ skills. Underpinned by a number of interviews with former and current policy makers interested in the use of evidence, we have also came up with a series of more ‘political’ factors affecting the use of evidence (hiding of information, distrust) or factors that have to do with management issues (the flow between jurisdictions and levels, outdated processes and tools, multiple languages used in the public sector, or changes of the political administration) which are no clearly present in mainstream analysis.

Based on our own research, and also considering the specialized literature, below we share some of the factors that influence the use of evidence in public sector agencies, grouped according to the following criteria: factors linked to the culture and factors linked to the political dynamic. The second part of the post will share factors linked to administration and management, and factors linked to the context. Depending on the characteristics of these factors within different contexts, there shall become challenges or opportunities to use evidence in the public sector.

Factors related to culture          

a)      Value given to research. Organizational culture has an essential role when allowing for or hindering a wider use of information. 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, including its processing and communication.

b)      The bureaucratic logic. The idea that everything is fine, that there is no need for change or innovation (“it has always been done this way”), gives preference to the existing frameworks in order to understand policy problems and, therefore, favors evidence confirming the efficiency of current practices.

c)       The role of leaders. Many top rank officials, or in a leadership position within their agencies, do not instill or demand the use of evidence in policy design.

d)      Multiple languages. The different areas of the state may speak different “languages”, use different jargons and not use the same terms to define the same phenomena. They may also plan using different criteria. These differences may affect inter area information management.

e)      Informality/ Lack of knowledge management. In public agencies’ hallways there is a lot of circulating information, which is not systematic and thus hiders a better leveraging thereof.

Factors related to political dynamics   

a)      Political system characteristics.                A pluralist system shall favor the creation of an open market of ideas and an intense competition among the different types of knowledge. On the contrary, a centralized system will create a narrower market of ideas.

b)      Urgency. The urgency to reach a consensus for decision making often hinders the possibility of resorting to new sources of information.

c)       Lack of demand. In general, policy-creating systems and processed do not require elaborating on the evidence that supports or goes against solutions to certain problems.

d)      Information concealment. Some organizations or officials often do not share information for fear of it being used to assess their performance. This is very common when talking about processes followed within the framework of monitoring and assessment systems.

e)      Mistrust. It refers to an environment of suspicion and mistrust as regards information and ideas coming from sources external to the public system. Therefore, many officials when resorting to research sources tend to prefer certain institutions or researchers. Besides, mistrust makes reference to the suspicion that the information provided by a certain public agency may bring about in officials from another agency due, for example, to the fact that they belong to different political sectors and the bias said information may imply.

f)       Previously defined goals. Ideas deriving from research may limit the implementation of the officials’ plans.

As mentioned, the second part of this post will share factors linked to administration and management, and factors linked to the context.

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