The role of evidence in policy making: “Within politics we will never have perfect information”
Updated: Jun 21, 2021
[Editor’s Note: Leonardo Garnier has been Minister of Education of Costa Rica for two consecutive terms (2006-2010 and 2010-2014) and Minister for National Planning and Economic Policy (1994-1998), among other positions held in the public service. He is Professor at the University of Costa Rica. He holds a PhD in Economics from the New School for Social Research, New York.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. The Spanish version of this interview is available here.]
Leandro Echt: What is the role that evidence generated by research may have on the policy process based on your experience?
Leonardo Garnier: In politics, one always seeks to have sufficient information to determine the direction of the process to be followed, the constraints you may face, the resources you count with, etc. At the same time, there is always a dose of intuition and sense of opportunity. Traditional approaches of planning and public policies assume that governments define, from the beginning and in detail, the goals, objectives, time and resources. But that does not always match reality. What you should have is a clear sense of direction, a reasonable order of magnitudes and the ability and flexibility to improvise from there, as it is done in jazz. Ultimately, I think it is always important to have as much information as possible, but one must not be paralyzed by its absence. Within politics we will never have perfect information.
LE: What are the factors that you consider when making policy decisions?
LG: As a politician, one uses a combination of information and interpretation, the latter based on the theoretical elements with which one can count as well as a historical and situational knowledge of facts.
For example, for the Ministry of Education a key policy issue is to reduce dropouts, an issue on which we usually do not have enough information. There are programs based on the idea that the most vulnerable are the ones that desert the most, so the State’s efforts directly address that population. But when you have information, you note that not all poor people desert and that not all those who drop out are poor; this phenomenon is also influenced by the age of the students, the levels of repetition or the educational level of the family. Having this information allows policy makers to develop some specific public policy instruments that might be different from the ones that could be carried out if it is just a problem associated with poverty. In short, having disaggregated information allows displaying different policy responses.
At the same time, there are situations in which the general knowledge that we have is reasonable enough so that there is no need of more detailed studies when making decisions. For example, in Costa Rica there was a rule for schools’ evaluation which fixed at 70% the minimum grade for approving the courses in high school. But this statement also said that if a student had a bad mark in behavior, then he or she had to get 80% to approve the other subjects. As a policy maker, you don’t need to conduct a special research to find out that this rule did not make sense, since it produced a false academic failure in students who, even though they fulfilled the 70% in academic subjects, they could repeat the year simply because some teachers considered them “too restless”. This case shows that having the information provided by the regulations and the already available statistics, plus holding some conversations with experts and people linked to the educational community, it was possible to make choices without need for new specific studies demonstrating the need for such reform.
LE: What kind of research do you typically need?
The key question here is: What available information tells me enough so that I can use it to make decisions? And that information can be extremely varied.
For example, the Ministry of Education moves forward in building a digitalized system of information coming from schools. Just to mention something, you can have information of the marks in different subjects for all students in the country. The potential of such information is huge: you can know in real time the marks of the different schools, courses and teachers. That allows you to know if what is failing is the group of students, the teachers, or if there are problems that transcend the school. And that information can not only be used by the principal of the school, but also by the supervisor of the educational circuit, the regional director or by the ministry.
There are also cases where the information that someone seeks to generate is not suitable for decision making. One of my first meetings at the Ministry of Education was with the Curriculum Direction. We already had the strategic lines, and we needed to define a work plan. The Direction had outlined a plan that pretended to analyze the state of art of the curricular world in the first year, a diagnosis of the curricular situation in the country in the second year, a proposal to reform the curriculum in the third year, a pilot of the reform in the fourth year, and finally the implementation of the reform in the fifth year. But in Costa Rica governments last four years! Most troubling is that this way of working is usually replicated when a new minister arrives. So our proposal was to focus on key subjects, and then search for comparative information, carry out a diagnosis of the country and then propose a viable reform considering the political timing. So there is a need for combining the sense of urgency with rigorous studies; there must be a balance: one should not proceed blindly nor be paralyzed by the lack of perfect information.
LE: What are the most frequent sources of information? How and why do you choose them?
LG: When you’re in politics, you require timely information. The Ministry can commission studies to universities and think tanks on issues where you don’t have sufficient information, but only if they are carried out within a reasonable time.
For example, in Costa Rica there exists a program called Estado de la Nación, which began as a partnership between the United Nations and the universities. It is currently managed by the universities. It is a good source of systematization and analysis on what happens in the country. They often systematize the same information circulating in the ministries. For example, the Ministry of Education worked with Estado de la Nación to geographically reference a lot of educational information. To do this, we gave them access to the databases of the ministry, and they contacted experts from national and foreign universities to work on the project.
Other times, one is lucky enough to access academic research that is very useful for educational policy decisions. For example, when I was Minister I met a doctoral student who was doing some research on how indigenous communities in Costa Rica learned mathematics, because their system is different from the Western. This was an original topic. When she concluded her research, we contacted her with the Department of Indigenous Education, in order to incorporate what she had learned during her thesis in working with indigenous communities.
The same applies to international research. For example, in terms of reading and writing skills, Stanislas Dehaene and other experts’ studies on neuro science were very useful to reform the curriculum of primary school according to what we now know about “how the brain reads and learns to read.”
In short, this is about knowing where to find research that shed light into diverse public policy issues on which there is no sufficient knowledge or there is not enough time to investigate. The ability to use existing knowledge and the one that is being generated in different fields is one of the many virtues that a public institution should have.
LE: What difficulties did you find when processing the information available in the public sector?
LG: In general, the information generated by various state agencies is not well used, because there is a culture that associates the idea of evaluation to control. The national ministry or regional offices asks policy makers for information all the time. However, the objective is to control rather than to effectively use for decision making. While there is a plenty of information that can be used to make decisions, what often fails is the management process of such information: generation, analysis, evaluation and use. The challenge is to convert information and data into political facts. The key is to translate complex data to understandable information which may be relevant to the national community and decision makers (as it happens with economic indicators such as inflation or unemployment, or in health with infant mortality: they are clearly understood and provoke immediate action).
LE: What characteristics did you seek in your team work in order to process the information to make decisions?
LG: I like teams that combine people that were already working in the institutions with people that come from other working environments. I consider a mistake when a politician arrives to an institution and renews the whole team, but so is working only with people that are already “inside”. The interaction between “internal” and “external” people is very rich. The former provide institutional knowledge and the latter provide new approaches that are not always visible to those immersed in the routine.
From my experience, I can say it is very helpful to count with this sort of mixed teams, in order to be able to translate timely information and available knowledge to formats that are suitable for decision makers. The technical and the political teams often systematize and filter the information coming from very different areas to suit the strategic needs and the challenges posed by the conjuncture.
LE: What skills should public officials have to better use evidence and promote its use within their workspaces?
LG: Policy makers’ profiles should provide a balance of reasonableness and sensitivity. Reasonableness in the sense of understanding the topic that they are working on and having a good technical training. We need people that are able to detect when an “anomalous” data indicates that there is a problem or when such data may be wrong this preventing to make wrong decisions. In addition, we need policy makers that are capable of addressing the available information, analyze it and present it in innovative and clear formats. But that reasonableness must be combined with the sensitivity to approach the issues from the perspective of the target population. For instance, in education, you must never forget that everything that is done must be based on the comprehensive learning of students.