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  • Writer's pictureClara Richards

Knowledge and policy making: the challenge to walk in other’s shoes

I am currently working as head of transparency and strengthening of information systems projects for the Management and Evaluation area of the Office of Planning and Budgeting, Presidency of the Republic of Uruguay.

Within the framework of this work I’d like to share two lessons from the “Leaders of change: developing Latin American policymakers’ capacity to promote the use of knowledge in policy” online course, developed by P&I during April and May 2015.

The first lesson is related to the different decision-making levels in my environment that have different information needs. One of the subjects covered in Module 2 was that of the differences in information needs based of the user’s role within an organization or policy-related decision-making process. Specifically, the text focused on the differences among three levels: political, strategic and operational players.

Some of my office goals are to strengthen or create information systems aimed at feeding planning and monitoring processes. We usually seek to promote the use of information stored in administrative records, due to its relatively low cost and potential ease of collection and use.

The demand for more and better information often comes from political authorities and, eventually, strategic managers. In short, the chain of thought that is applied in these cases is the following:

  1. We need to have “N” indicators to monitor and authorize decisions on a certain organization or policy at a political or strategic level.

  2. In order to build theseindicators, it is necessary that operational officials from an “X” organization record certain information on their users, activities, etc.

  3. Therefore, the solution lies in asking / making those operational officials to record the required data (in a new IT management system, in a new online form, etc.).

However, when this kind of “solution” is applied it is highly likely that information is not recorded, or is recorded with serious quality problems that make it unreliable. I understand that one of the reasons this happens is because needs and incentives of those in charge of recording information or their immediate supervisors are not properly taken into account. The new implemented system or form is seen as a burden that does not streamline the operative work, as a new bureaucratic requirement or a management whim.

Therefore, I find it essential that the design of the information systems we promote includes satisfying, at least partially, operational needs. Ideally, we should allow those in charge of filling out new records or their direct supervisors to also take advantage of the information produced in order to facilitate or improve their work. To do so, it is necessary to understand those needs and to include specific efforts to train and bring awareness to operation levels in the new system deployment plan. For example, we may design and teach how to use system reports that allow them to monitor their level, or take advantage of the system to automate any procedure that implies a reduction in their administrative work load.

Another significant lesson is how important it is to “walk in other people’s shoes” specially taking into account their values and ideas, when making arguments in policy-related discussions.

In Exercise 1 I worked on the needs for information in view of a hypothetical situation where the political opposition proposed lowering the criminal liability age in response to the feeling of lack of safety a large part of the population was experiencing. In that exercise, those who were in favor as well as those who were against lowering said age presented evidence and knowledge in order to defend their positions, although opinions were created beforehand based on ideological convictions. In short, I proposed trying to influence the discussion by accumulating and publishing more scientific research and evidence against lowering the age limit. The correction I received highlighted the convenience of not leaving ideological considerations out of the argument, since they do not go against a culture of using thorough evidence, but rather they are supplementary.

On the other hand, we need to take into account that political authorities are elected; they maintain (or not) citizens’ support mainly based on oral exchanges where ideology and emotions are often more important than the logical strength of what is being said or its supporting evidence.          

Therefore, when suggesting alternative policies it would be important to consider, as part of the feasibility analysis, whether what we are proposing the decision-maker is consistent or at least “adaptable” to the values and ideology he/she publicly defends. Because in order to successfully explain it, he/she will have to explain it to his/her constituents in those terms. Or, in other words, in order to call the attention of policy decision-makers on a certain proposal, we need to clearly show that it is in line with their values and ideas.

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