• Clara Richards

Is there room for evidence? Factors affecting the use of information in policy making (part 2)

In the first part of this post, we concentrated in two groups of factors that influence the use of evidence in policy making. On the one hand, within the factors related to the culture we identified the value given to research, the bureaucratic logic, the role of leaders, the existence of multiple languages, and the informality/lack of knowledge management. On the other hand, within the factors related to the political dynamics we presented the political system characteristics, urgency, the lack of demand, the information concealment, mistrust and the existence of previously defined goals by decision makers.

This second part of the post concentrates in two other group of factors: those related to the management in the public sector and the contextual factors:

Management-inherent factors

a)      Resources. Not all organizations have resources to generate information or conduct/commissioning research projects.

b)      Flow between jurisdictions and levels. The flow of information is more complex in those countries with federal government structures. There, national agencies’ access to information generated by local agencies and vice versa is often limited by the degree of political affinity or distancing among the parties. There are also horizontal challenges: the different national government agencies shall share more or less information based on the political affinity among them.

c)       Outdated information. On occasion, available information (for example, population data), whether provided from academic institutions or the state itself, is outdated, thus preventing it to be added to diagnosis or proposal generation in different public policy-related issues.

d)      Obsolete processes or tools. Many areas of the state have not computerized all the information they have available yet. Having digital tools to manage information shall allow for a more efficient, timely use thereof.

e)      Officials’ skills. Public agencies with highly trained personnel in the generation, processing, interpretation and communication of research work shall be able to make a better use of said information during the decision making process.

f)       Changes in administration. Changes in administration, whether at national, subnational or local level, may imply that the new government dismisses the information produced by their predecessors. However, changes are opportunities, and therefore the new administration may take more interest in information generation and use.

g)      Turnover rate.  Information management is often influenced by the high turnover rates public agencies are often exposed to. Said turnover may imply the loss of valuable information for the decision making process due to the fact that it was not computerized or communicated in time.

h)      Excessive division of responsibilities. Division of responsibilities within government bureaucracy may also limit the use of evidence, since the fact that officials focus on small work areas hinders the possibility of them directing said information beyond their immediate area of responsibility.

Contextual factors

a)      Public policy area in question. There are some areas of public policy that, due to their nature, are exposed to a higher use of information. This is the case, for example, of the health sector, where having research work on the effects of certain medications is important to define policies. Decisions on other policy areas may be more subject to ideological, value-related considerations, etc.

b)      Existence of social players fostering the use of evidence. International organizations often act as spokespersons of the importance of using information in the decision making process. Their more or less significant presence, their relation with decision-makers and the level of power they have to influence decision making, may affect the degree to which information is incorporated in the public policy processes. The same happens with the existence of academic communities (universities, policy research institutes) that are recognized by society and which, due to said legitimacy, may have a more active role in policy creation.

c)       Social valuation of science. If the level of confidence a country has on science is low, it is more probable that there is a lower level of aggregated ability of society’s players (universities, civil society organizations, companies, the state itself) to produce quality, relevant information for the decision making process, which makes it more difficult for information to become a deciding factor in the decision making process.

d)      Citizens’ demand for the use of evidence in the decision making process. Incentives to support decisions with information weaken if citizens do not demand their political leaders to justify the decisions they make.

Of course not all factors (including those addressed in the first part of this reflection) are always present in all organizations. Then, it is important to detect which factors (and other factors) best describe your own work dynamics. For example, there shall be organizations with officials more interested and eager to incorporate evidence; organizations with more accumulated information or which have developed more or less routine processes to generate, process and/or use information. Besides, it is often the case that the role of an organization within the framework of state structures allows for a higher or lower level of use of information (typically, the areas of budget, planning or monitoring and evaluation are the most exposed to information management). In short, it is about acknowledging the challenges and opportunities inherent to your own work space in order to design strategies to promote a higher level of information use in your daily work.

On the other hand, besides the factors we may call “inherent to state organizations” and context, officials who wish to incorporate evidence to the decision making process often face challenges that stem from the evidence management and communication dynamics itself: from the difficult to access research to the challenges of processing information which often is expressed in an excessively theoretical language, and also the gap between proposals coming from research and the political and budgetary feasibility of carrying them out. But these challenges stemming from research dynamics could be addressed in upcoming posts.

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