The role of evidence in policy making: “The ideal adviser should meet three skills: analytical-conce
Updated: Jun 21, 2021
[Editor’s Note: This interview is part of a wider series of talks with current and former officials, politicians and researchers from different countries in Latin America about the role of research and information in the public policy process. Interviews are an input to the development of an upcoming online course produced by P&I aimed at promoting the use of evidence to inform policy decisions in Latin America.]
Leandro Echt: What is the role that evidence generated by research may have on the policy process based on your experience?
Miguel Braun: The Government of the City of Buenos Aires uses evidence extensively when planning policy interventions, and when monitoring and evaluating the political and social impact of those interventions. Discussions within government are permanently fed by the available evidence. The Congress also uses evidence when generating proposals and bills. In short, the evidence is involved throughout the entire policy process, which is not to say that it is the determining factor when making decisions.
LE: What are the factors that policy makers consider when making policy decisions?
MB: Although the evidence is part of the decision, the latter always has a political component. Furthermore, in politics there are different impulses ranging from winning elections to positioning certain candidates in society, through ideological agendas or management agendas. All these factors influence how decisions are finally made.
LE: In what specific situations do policy makers turn to the evidence generated by research to make policy decisions?
MB: In the planning stage, the teams have more time to make use of available information. It also happens when they are monitoring a specific intervention. In the context of electoral processes policy makers turn to information as well, but with electoral purposes rather than to make policy decisions.
LE: What kind of research do they typically need? What are the most frequent sources of information?
MB: More than in certain types of studies, politicians trust or listen to people because of their specific weight, whether they are experts, businessmen or unions. People are heard because of what they represent and the political resources they are able to mobilize, rather than the type of information that they count with. Typically, a politician resorts to more than one source. He/she can rely on advisers, but will also contrast the information with other relevant stakeholders. Depending on the policy area, social actors with a specific interest in those areas can also be consulted.
LE: What are the formats that politicians prefer to receive evidence?
MB: Politicians receive information already processed by their body of advisers. It is very important to build relationships based on trust. The best study, with the best evidence by an external source, may weigh less than three lines written by an adviser. But overall, the information must be strong and clear: what is the problem, who will benefit from a certain decision, what are the alternatives and the reasons for choosing the different courses of action. The format depends on the idiosyncrasies of who is in charge of processing information and of the politician who receives it: it can be a power point, two pages, a video, etc.
LE: What factors facilitate and hinder the use of research in public policy?
MB: Politicians want to make good decisions. The main factor that hinders the use of evidence is time. Most of the time, they must take urgent decisions. Faced with such emergencies, waiting for the evidence to be available becomes unviable.
On the other hand, the personal and professional features of the politician also influence the use (or not) that can be given to evidence. Another influential factor is the extent to which the society claims for justifications of the decisions that are made by politicians, which are often reflected through media.
LE: What skills should public officials have to better use evidence and promote its use within their workspaces?
MB: It is very important to have an understanding of the decision-making process in a certain policy area, and therefore be able to identify the relevant actors involved in that process. You also need the capacity to build dialogue with those actors. Then, it is important to transform information into formats that are consumable by decision-makers. In short, the ideal adviser should meet three types of skills: analytical-conceptual, relational and communicational.
LE: Can you share a concrete case in which your team used evidence to make decisions?
MB: A recent case is the voting around the Hydrocarbons Law. In reaching this decision, there were at least four top-level meetings with specialists from Fundación Pensar and other external experts. Meetings with companies working in the sector were generated. Several short papers on the subject were written. We tried to foresee the impacts of the law, its beneficiaries, etc. We also worked on drafting an alternative bill, which eventually failed to be presented. That is, there was a lot of technical work behind the decision that was then made at a political level. Of course, when making the decision we also considered political components, such as the impact that the decision could have on current and future relationships with the companies in the sector. But the evidence, as often happens in many of the government decisions, played a major role.
[Editor’s note: You can read here the interview to Nicolás Ducoté, Councilman for Pilar, a district of the province of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and here the interview to Leonardo Garnier, former Minister of Education of Costa Rica (2006-2010 and 2010-2014) and Minister for National Planning and Economic Policy (1994-1998).]