Advancing evidence-informed policymaking: What’s culture got to do with it?

30-second summary

  1. It is essential to better understand the evidence use culture in government so we can help strengthen the role of evidence in policymaking.
  2. It is important to build the systems and processes governments need to ensure evidence is appropriately sourced and used, as well as instilling a shared and publicly expressed value in using evidence. 
  3. Investing in leaders and champions, building knowledge and awareness, and recognising and rewarding desired behavior are just a few of the recommendations from Abeba Taddese and her team at Results for All.

Over the last few months, my team at Results for All has been engaged in consultations to assess the demand for a new global evidence network that could bring government policymakers together to exchange innovative ideas and learn from each other to advance evidence use in policymaking.

We have spoken to policymakers in government, members of the research and academic community, as well as non-governmental partners and initiatives in countries including Colombia, Chile, Finland, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, among many others.

In every conversation, we heard about the importance of building or shifting the culture of evidence use. While we expect and assume that organisational culture will be different in varied contexts, we observed an interesting tendency in the policymaking community to speak about culture and evidence use in a way that suggested some universality across policy areas and levels of government. We noted further that in the context of evidence use, “culture” was often spoken of in broad and vague terms, such as “there is no culture of producing data”.

We are curious about the notion of an evidence use culture in government, and believe it is essential to better understand it so we can identify strategies to help strengthen evidence use in government.

Levels of culture

To understand culture as it relates to evidence use in government, it is helpful to explore the different levels in which culture presents itself in an organisation. This includes artefacts, values, and assumptions, captured in a helpful visual here.

The visible and tangible elements of an organisation are its artefacts. They are what you see when you walk into an office – desks, chairs, computers, plants, and filing systems. Reports, briefs, databases, and knowledge management systems are also types of artefacts.

Yet these visual cues about an office’s culture may be misleading if we do not understand the organisation’s values and the underlying assumptions that drive the daily work of its leaders and employees. For example, a government office may have the relevant evidence artefacts such as a knowledge management system or evaluations, but lack shared values to guide and encourage evidence use in decision making.

But even when there are tangible artefacts, and a government office publicly articulates the value of using evidence in policymaking, if the underlying assumption is that using evidence is too costly or time consuming, the office is unlikely to translate its artefacts and values to systematic use of evidence in policy decisions.

In the context of evidence-informed policymaking, it is important to build artefacts – the systems and processes governments need to ensure evidence is appropriately sourced and used to inform strategic thinking, policy development, implementation of policy options, and monitoring and evaluation.

It is also critical to build and instil a shared and publicly expressed value in using evidence. But to influence behaviour change and shift attitudes about evidence use, it is imperative that we consider the basic assumptions that guide how work is done and decisions are made. When what we say (reflecting values) does not align with how we behave (building and using artefacts), it is a sign that we need to dig deeper to understand the assumptions that govern our behaviour.

What should governments do to strengthen underlying assumptions and shift the culture toward evidence use?

  1. Take time to know the office – For many government offices, a conversation to understand barriers and challenges that inhibit evidence use, and clarify performance expectations and intended outcomes of policies, is a good starting point for those who would like to see greater use of evidence in policymaking. Build the communications skills to hold these conversations. A needs assessment can help to diagnose the gaps in knowledge, awareness, and capacity that can influence assumptions around what it takes to find, understand, and use evidence.
  1. Invest in leaders and champions – Strong role models who demonstrate the importance of using evidence through their actions can inspire others and help to change behaviour patterns. Highlighting respected leaders who support innovation, change, and learning can positively influence other public officials’ assumptions and attitudes toward evidence use.
  1. Build knowledge and awareness – Policymakers who are confident in their ability to find, appraise, and synthesise evidence, and who understand the complexities of the policymaking process, are more likely to use evidence in their decision making process. Training courses or events such as dedicated research weeks can raise awareness about the value of using evidence and change assumptions that using evidence is too intimidating or complex.
  1. Create a compelling narrative – The development economist, Ruth Levine, gets at a moral argument for evidence-informed policymaking here and here. Moving from a compliance and monitoring mindset to a compelling narrative that points to failed outcomes for citizens when we do not use evidence can be a way to shift attitudes and behaviour toward evidence use.
  1. Promote networks and relationships – Whether formal or informal, peer interactions can help policymakers strengthen technical skills and shift attitudes and assumptions by exposing them to new ideas. As an organisation, this could mean giving staff the time and space to connect with each other to share information, lessons, and experiences.
  1. Recognise and reward desired behaviour – Different strategies can be used to motivate policymakers to use evidence in decision making, ranging from financial performance incentives to less resource-intensive award and recognition programs. Governments can use these strategies to promote and reward desired behaviour, nudging policymakers to shift their assumptions and actions to align with organisational values.

It takes time and intentional effort to build or change the evidence culture in government. And to truly do so, we will need to scratch beneath the surface to investigate the underlying assumptions that influence whether individuals and organisations actually use evidence in their work. These assumptions determine whether values become empty statements and artefacts gather dust or, ultimately, whether evidence use becomes a cultural norm.

 

FURTHER READING

  • CPI Briefing Bulletin: From evidence to outcomes: how to improve outcomes through effective evidence-informed policy and practice
  • It’s all about the Results. How can we increase the use of evidence and data in government decision-making? Michele Jolin and David Medina from Results for America offer up some ideas.
  • What works: a new emphasis on evidence in the US. Protecting and enhancing the role of evidence in the policymaking process was at the top of Kathy Stack’s to-do list during her long career at the heart of the US federal government. She tells us about progress made – and improvements still to come
  • Striving for scale. Clean water, deworming a whole community – Evidence Action is leading the charge to deliver evidence-based development interventions where need, opportunity and impact collide. Its former executive director, Alix Zwane, tells us about their progress in scaling impact so far
  • Reverse to traverse. When it comes to policy, government should do more U-turns, says Jonathan Breckon 
  • DC despatch. While there is much that unites the policymakers of London and Washington, DC, very few among them have worked in both cities’ corridors of power. Kate Josephs, however, is an exception. She tells us about her experiences driving performance improvement in both governments – and how she got there
  • Onwards to outcomes. Dustin Brown is using his role at the heart of the US Federal Government to persuade ever more of his colleagues to focus on results and impact. He tells us how he’s getting on