The role of evidence in public policies: informing means or ends?
In ‘The Well-informed. Citizen: An Essay on the Social Distribution of Knowledge’, Alfred Schutz (1974) states: “… expect from the expert’s advice merely the indication of suitable means for attaining pergiven ends, but not the determination of the ends themselves”.
Public policies not only imply defining the best course of action to approach a public problem. Often, it is also about defining a country’s development priorities or the strategic lines of a government or administration. This is important above all in highly unequal societies such as those in Latin American, where some of the most important political debates and decisions revolt around the goals, i.e., the society they want to build (see Du Toit, 2012).
In general, the goals of public policies are defined at the policy level, and often are related to the ideology a government may have or, in more developed countries, to long term state policies. As Papadópulos (2013) stated, the major policy setting issues are a “spring” of the state. Thus, as regards the means to achieve said goals, evidence stemming from research may make a bigger contribution by helping to debate the how of the issue, the way and the means to turn those goals into reality.
As an example, if a government defines strengthening redistribution of wealth as a priority, research may contribute evidence on the best courses of action to achieve it based on the characteristics of a society’s productive matrix or the existing legislation: Is it convenient to introduce changes to the tax system? Is it possible to increase transfer expenses (unemployment insurance, pensions)? Is it possible to implement direct intervention measures to the market mechanism (minimum wages, limitations to payment of dividends, etc.)? What are the implications and potential consequences of each course of action?
Seldom will the available research of evidence be able to influence political decisions in terms of where a country (region, province or municipality) should go as regards education, health, infrastructure, etc. However, that does not mean that there are not several players (experts, research organizers, universities) actually devoted to thinking about the best development strategies for a country who become a valid source when debating policy priorities.
So experts, research organisations and other peers: what is the value added that you can bring to the definition of means for (political) pergiven ends? How can you revise your role regarding making recommendations in order to better attain to those pergiven ends and, thus, frame them in the decision makers’ perspective and objectives?