The role of evidence in policy making: using external information, broadening the contributions’ hor
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[Editor’s note: This post is part of a series produced by Leandro Echt and Vanesa Weyrauch from Politics&Ideas to share what we learn through the development and conduction of an online course targeted to policymakers in Latin America on the use of research in policy. The first part of this post focused on using internal information.]
Beyond the state, there is a wide range of players actively producing information that may be useful in the decision making process.
In some cases, these players look to make an explicit contribution to public decision making. That is the case of public policy research centers or think tanks. From educational policy to health, including fiscal or electoral policy, these organizations generate knowledge around public policies and seek to create an impact in the decision making process. Apart from their ability to generate and analyze information, these organizations often deploy a series of communication abilities aiming at bringing information closer to decision makers through clear, concise messages and through clear channels such as the media.
Also, society organizations are a valuable source of information for decision makers, since they accumulate expertise in different areas related to the implementation of public policies and often share strong ties with citizens, which makes them closer to a specific knowledge of many issues the state seeks to understand.
Universities also produce relevant research works as regards public issues. While in general their production is more academic and, therefore, their public policy implications are not always explicit, the information generated by these institutions may become one of the most solid pillars the knowledge structure of a country may have. Unlike think tanks and civil society organizations, universities resort to rigorous methods to conduct their research, since they are not focused on political influence or on searching for solutions to public problems, but on contributing to science. It is worth mentioning that in the case of public universities, a greater contribution to solving and managing social issues can be expected.
International organizations such as the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and several UN agencies, among others, besides acting as funds lenders to governments in order to support the development of plans and programs are an important source of knowledge. Their broad presence in different countries and their analysis of the issues said countries face, allow them to access and interact with decision makers.
The media are also a very relevant source of information for public decision making. Above all, those agencies that work with junctures, for which it is useful to know the country and its territories daily situation. Especially, the local media provide an overview of facts that are sometimes distant to central governments, and therefore, difficult to access as regards information. In order to gather said information, many agencies hire media clipping services or even have communication units collect and systematize the information in the media and distribute it to the different government agencies according to their work focus.
On the other hand, journalists tend to have lots of information, they know the sources and also know who to ask on different issues. That is to say that they can provide a wider overview of the voices involved in the debate around certain issues.
In turn, every country has a series of experts that are consulted by several public agencies regarding program design or implementation. Those experts may represent the above mentioned institutions or not. They are the typical characters found close to decision makers, called consultants.
Besides, public organizations may learn a lot from their peers’ experience, i.e., other public agencies from the same country or from abroad. It is frequent to travel to other countries to get to know how some programs work or the logic behind them or even some institutions creation and modus operandi.
A common characteristic of the information generated by these players is that, in general, they use official data, i.e., information produced by the state. In some cases, access to said data is more direct, since they are a public asset generated, stored and communicated by national statistics institutes. In other cases, these players use different strategies to generate data (for example interviews or surveys). The value these players add to said information is related to its systematization and analysis and even the creation of recommendation for action based on said information. In addition, they may offer differential points of view, since distance and perspective allows them to identify issues or potential solutions that the public actor overlooks in his daily work.
Finally, a valuable source of information for decision makers are their colleagues, i.e. other politicians acting in the same environment or with similar goals or experiences. This interaction among politically experienced peers, whether or not from the same political party, is extremely useful to analyze, consider and defining courses of actions.
Internal or external information: which path to choose?
As mentioned above, resorting to internal or external information are not mutually exclusive decisions. They shall depend on the type of information needed, the time available to produce said information, or the level of trust or preference for one type of information or another, its reliability, timeliness, relevance, etc.
Resorting to internal or external information are not mutually exclusive decisions. But it is good to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of both types in order to make a better choice and be more efficient when searching for, systematizing, analyzing and communicating the available evidence.
However, it is also possible to combine the use of internal and external sources when producing or using information. Strategic alliances between public sector agencies and external organizations such as think tanks, the private sector or universities, allow combining efforts to obtain the best of the public sector (timely access to better, more complete information) as well as the best external players have to offer (analytical ability and independent analysis).