The role of evidence in policy making: using internal information, the State as a generator of evide
By Tontographer en flickr.com under CC license
[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 second part of this post will focus on using external information.]
When facing the need for information, the first question a policymaker must ask him/herself is whether the knowledge he/she needs is already available or if, on the contrary, it needs to be produced. In both cases, two basic scenarios can be distinguished: the search for internal information (within the state) or the search for external information (consulting with other social players that usually generate information).
Internal information is data existing or generated by public sector agencies, stored information systems or available in organizational documents. External information are those pieces of information produced by players external to public sector agencies: universities (public or private), independent researchers, think tanks, civil society organizations and international organizations, among others.
The tendency to resort to internally or externally generated information is linked to different issues. We can mention, among others, the type of information needed, the time available to obtain said information, the confidentiality of the decisions to make, the reliance or preference for one type of information or the other, the publicity to be given to the use of said information, etc. Of course, it is also possible to resort to a combination of both types of knowledge.
The state as a generator of information
When officials need to generate or collect information, they need to think about not only what is usually produced by players outside the state, or what can be commissioned to them. On a daily basis, information generated by public sector agencies is used, even though this process is often more internalized and is not recognized as an active search for information, since it is a more natural process, less systematized or regulated.
In fact, the state’s ability to generate information is unmatched by any other evidence source. In all public sector agencies and levels there is a level of circulating information impossible to be generated by external sources, due to the importance of the subjects and types of sources available or potentially available.
However, the state generally uses much less than what it produces. Its huge production capacity is not matched by the effetive opportunities of its members to use it in decision making. In fact, some of the challenges for the use of information in the public sector include: lack of suitable processes for the flow of information among jurisdictional levels, the lack of innovative tools that allow for the systematization of available information or the concealment of information by officials according to their political interests.
Still, information available in public sector agencies is a valuable resource for those looking to make public policy decisions. Let’s suppose the Ministry of Education of an X country advances in the creation of a digital system of information from educational institutions. It shall provide information on grades, courses, just to name a few, for every student in the country. The potential is huge: we may know in real time the grades corresponding to different schools, courses and teachers. That allows us to know whether what is failing is the group of students, the teachers or if there are problems that go beyond the educational institution. And that information can be used not only by the director of an educational institution, but also by the level supervisor, the regional director or the ministry as such.
Now, it is necessary to highlight the difference between producing information (where the state obviously bears the greatest responsibility and all comparative advantages) and producing research, which is a different process (but certainly not limiting). Among the public agencies that stand out due to their role as information generators there are the national statistics institutes. From INDEC in Argentina, to INEGI in Mexico, INEI in Peru and DGEEC in Paraguay, the national statistics institutes are public, technical agencies that unify the orientation and direct all official statistical activities that take place within the country. In general, they are directly responsible for the methodological design, organization and direction of national data collection operations through censuses and surveys, the preparation of basic social order and economic indicators and the production of other basic statistics.
According to Daniel (2011), besides producing information, central statistical offices express the state’s cognitive interest: What are the concerns about which the state is seeking information? Besides, the author highlights the close relationship between official knowledge production, the political definition of a governmental agenda and the state management or intervention styles in different matters: statistics help not only to acknowledge a problematic situation and to legitimate it as a social concern (thus, the manipulation or intervention of statistical centers by many governments) but also may offer guidance for action (for example, the role of statistics was redefined in Brazil and it became a source of information for development planning when the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics was placed under the scope of the Ministry of Planning during the 60s and 70s).
On the other hand, over the last few years Latin American countries have sought to generate more research in public sector agencies through the creation or reactivation of investigative units. Ecuador is an example of how the state decides to increase and prioritize information production in state agencies. Recently the Ecuadorian state has started to conduct more research in many of its agencies. To do so, first it has managed to attract more highly trained personnel, with more technical profiles, who has been appointed directors. Anyway, it does not mean that the state conducts all types of research work; it shall depend on the characteristics of the research work, its scope, schedule, the possibility of having experts in the subject matter, etc.
Broadening the capabilities of information production and use by state officials is extremely important to national states, which would thus be able to not only make more effective decisions, but also debate with more solid arguments against other political players.
[Editor’s note: The second part of this post will focus on using external information.]