Evidence isn’t just for policy-makers

23 November 2017
Insight
Woman raising her hand.

Influencing a key policy decision is often seen as the holy grail of international development research. We all want positive change and policy influence is a really important part of that process. But the idea that this is all that matters when it comes to evidence use in international development is a myth. Sustainable development progress requires evidence-informed decision-making throughout policy and practice.

Senior government officials are just one type of decision-maker

A common misconception among development professionals is that the only evidence-users and decision-makers that matter are law-makers sitting in the upper echelons of government ministries. These are just one type of decision-maker.

A whole spectrum of people across the development sector are critical to making change happen. For example: donors who decide what to fund and what not to; think tank directors who set research priorities; or project managers in development agencies who decide how to implement the next phase of an aid project.

The problem with thinking about decision-makers as only senior policy-makers, is that it places the burden of evidence use on a just a few. When really, we all have a responsibility to ensure that evidence is used in decision-making across the sector. 

It’s not enough to just get your evidence to the right people

It’s easy to think that evidence-informed decision-making just needs a good supply of high-quality evidence and a plan to get it to the decision-makers (whoever they are).

But there is also a whole myriad of factors that can incentivise, discourage, facilitate or hinder evidence use.

Here are just a few contextual factors that may influence if or how people use evidence: is the evidence credible? Do the decision-makers think it is credible? Is anyone else presenting a contradictory argument? Is there a demand for new ideas? Is there a culture of evidence use? What are the structures and processes for decision-making? How do assumptions, beliefs and values influence the decision-makers?

What we need to do differently

One way to support evidence-informed decision-making is to look at the organisations within which those decisions get made.

Whether it’s a government department, think tank or programme implementation team, we all work within organisational systems, processes and cultures. And those organisational norms can both support and hinder evidence use.

Organisations need to take a look at their systems and processes and find ways to support learning and improve evidence use.

This isn’t simple, or easy, but it’s important and doable. Take a government department for example. Since 2008, South Africa’s Department for Environmental Affairs (DEA) has made a concerted effort to enhance its systems for using evidence. DEA is now working to embed these improved processes into its ‘business as usual’.

And it’s happening in other organisations too. For example the International Fund for Agricultural Development recently prepared guidelines to improve the way evidence is used to inform policy in their country strategies and operational programmes.

So, in this so called ‘post-truth’ era, there’s been a lot of concern about the lack of evidence use by senior policy-makers. But unless we stop seeing this as a problem that exists ‘over there’ – with just an elite few – we’re not going to see a shift in the culture of evidence use. We need to start thinking about our own organisations, practice and work.