What informs policy? Sources of information bureaucrats use in policymaking

Koga et alNatália Massaco Koga, Miguel Loureiro
Pedro Lucas de Moura Palotti, Rafael da Silva Lins
Bruno Gontyjo do Couto and Shanna Nogueira Lima.

The Evidence-based policy (EBP) movement argues for policy actors to use scientific evidence on ‘what works’ to improve public policies, highlighting the importance of science in policymaking. Empirical research shows that even bureaucrats in Anglo-Saxon countries, strongly influenced by this movement do not use academic sources widely, often preferring other sources of information, such as news media, public opinion and peers. But what informs policy in countries with low EBP influence?

In our recent article published in Policy & Politics, we give an overview of the sources of information Brazilian bureaucrats use in their policy work. Our study not only shows what informs bureaucrats in general, but also what informs different bureaucrats in their different policy contexts. Using data from a large-n survey with 2,180 Brazilian federal bureaucrats, we uncovered associations between sources of information and factors shaping their preferences, such as policy work and policy capacities. Based on the literature on policy analysis and EBP we present an analytical model for examining the use of information sources by bureaucrats in policymaking. Our framework advocates that sources of information depend on individual characteristics, the type of work, the policy sector and analytical policy capacities (see the diagram below).

Factors shaping bureaucrats’ use of information sources


We found that in a civil law system such as the Brazilian administration, ‘homemade’ sources dominate: mainly government sources were used, especially among bureaucrats performing analytical and oversight tasks, and those in higher positions. In fact, there was a strong association between sources of information produced by government and most contextual variables. In addition, we found a significant use of in-house sources in analytical and oversight types of policy work by mid-level bureaucrats in the control policy realm, as well as – to a lesser extent – in economic and social policy sectors. We also observed that the use of academic sources was associated with higher analytical capacity – both of the individual and of the organisation – although it was not predominant in any particular policy sector. The table below details these findings.

Type of policy work and sources of information


Two main issues emerge from these results. The first is the potential role that government sources of information play as an intermediary and validator of other sources of information; the second concerns the relationships found between the analytical and oversight work. Are there gatekeepers or knowledge brokers controlling which sources of information reach the federal administration? If so, who are they and how does this dynamic operate? Our results seem to suggest that oversight and mid-level bureaucrats are key actors exercising this function.

An aspect rarely discussed in the literature is what effect a country’s legal system exerts on the legitimacy of different types of information. For example, the civil law legal system in Brazil (in contrast to common law systems) may necessitate the transformation of different types of information into governmental sources such as laws and regulations, formal legal opinions or control agencies’ recommendations, in order to be legitimated by the state.

Based on our findings, we propose two important policy prescriptions. Firstly, as contextual factors are relevant to determine which sources of information public officials use, then enhancing analytical capacity seems particularly important. This is also important if we are to expand and improve the use of scientific knowledge in policymaking. One way of doing that is to strengthen the relationship between individual and organisational capacities. Secondly, we can’t ignore the inherent political nature of policymaking and the necessity of combining scientific sources with other sources of information in public administration. Efforts to build good evidence-based governance systems need to consider that other types of knowledge beyond scientific knowledge can also count as evidence and can be equally valuable sources of scientific knowledge as government sources.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics

Natália Massaco Koga, Miguel Loureiro, Pedro Lucas de Moura Palotti, Rafael da Silva Lins, Bruno Gontyjo do Couto, and Shanna Nogueira Lima. (2022) Analysing the information sources Brazilian bureaucrats use as evidence in everyday policymaking Policy and Politics.

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The neglected politics behind evidence-based policy: shedding light on instrument constituency dynamics

Expert knowledge and policymaking: a multi-disciplinary research agenda

Lessons from policy theories for the pursuit of equity in health, education and gender policy

Special Issue: Transformational change through Public Policy

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Policy & Politics, the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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Updating your course reading lists? Check out our essential reading recommendations for Public Policy, Politics and Social Policy from Policy & Politics

All articles featured in this blog post are free to access until 31 October 2021

KoebeleIntroducing Elizabeth Koebele: our new Digital Associate Editor for Policy & Politics, and Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Nevada, Reno.

I am thrilled to have begun serving as Digital Associate Editor for Policy & Politics in January 2021. I have spent the last few months taking over this position from my colleague, Oscar Berglund, who now serves as one of the journal’s co-editors. As many of us are beginning to plan for our policy and politics-focused courses next semester, I figured what better way to celebrate joining the P&P team than to share with you some of my favorite Policy & Politics articles that make a great fit on a variety of syllabi? I hope this saves you time and effort in mining our recent articles, while also ensuring your course materials reflect the latest research from the frontiers of the discipline.

My initial suggestions are structured around two general topics that I hope many of you find yourself teaching or studying: one focused on knowledge, and one focused on actors/influence. I’m also sharing my top picks for readings on an increasingly popular policy topic: policy diffusion/transfer. In each case, I’ve recommended three articles that represent some of the most significant research we’ve published recently. Please let me know what you think when you’re compiling your reading lists for the start of the academic year. I’d value your feedback and suggestions for future topics to cover! Continue reading

Why evidence-based policy is political 

SimonsArno Simons

The idea that public policy should be informed by scientific knowledge has great appeal. There is a growing understanding among politicians, the media and the public that decision making—especially on complex issues such as climate change and biodiversity—must include a scientific evaluation of the underlying problems and the available solutions. The reasoning is that, without science, public policies are most likely doomed to be irrational or ideological or both. To dissociate themselves from such “bad policy making” and to express their commitment to science in the policy process, policy makers and analysts have come to adopt the slogan “evidence-based policy” (EBP). Continue reading

Experts – how influential are they in policymaking?

Feb highlightsJohan Christensen with Sarah Brown

Highlights collection free to access from 1 February 2021 – 30 April 2021

Experts – how influential are they? By Johan Christensen based on his P&P article on Expert knowledge and policymaking: a multi-disciplinary research agenda

“We have to listen to the experts.” During the coronavirus pandemic, this phrase has been repeated by politicians across the world. Only a few years ago, we were told that “people have had enough of experts”. Now experts are back in demand. At press conferences, prime ministers are flanked by public health experts. And governments have set up a dizzying number of expert groups and task forces to examine policy measures to stop the spread of the virus, to formulate strategies to exit the crisis, and even to investigate the government response to the crisis. Continue reading

Virtual issue on Evidence in policymaking and the role of experts

Sarah BrownSarah Brown,
Journal Manager, Policy & Politics

New virtual issues from Policy & Politics:
Evidence in policymaking and the role of experts

The importance of using evidence in policymaking and debates over the role of experts has never been more crucial than during the current coronavirus pandemic and ensuing public health crisis. From prevailing, long-standing debates over both topics in Policy & Politics, we bring you a collection of our best and most recent articles.

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A new understanding of evidence-based policy

philip sayerPhilip Sayer

‘Evidence-based policy’ and ‘what works’ are phrases that have become increasingly embedded in debate surrounding good policy-making over the last 20 years. This period has seen no shortage of critiques of these terms and the ways in which they have been employed, but relatively few attempts to articulate the precise foundations of knowledge on which they rest. Yet there are many interesting and important questions that might be asked. How exactly are stronger forms of evidence to be separated from weaker forms? What foundational assumptions lie behind the frequent endorsement of experimental methods? Or, most fundamentally, what precisely is the nature of the proposed link between good evidence and good policy?  Continue reading

‘Scientific’ policymaking in a ‘complex’ world – what can we learn from the Finnish experience?

ylostalo picture 2Hanna Ylöstalo

Policy solutions, interventions and reform revolve around specific societal diagnoses of the problems that policymaking is supposed to solve. One of the most influential societal diagnoses informing contemporary policy reform seems to be the following: the world has become more ‘complex’, problems have become ‘wicked’ ie intractable, and all policy solutions involve a great deal of ‘uncertainty’. This popular, but rather vague and unhistorical notion has sprung various new approaches to solve diverging political problems. These approaches are often legitimised with scientific knowledge and methods.   Continue reading

Knowledge brokering for policy: What do we know?


mackillop author image update







Eleanor MacKillop, Sarah Quarmby and James Downe

If only policy could be better informed by evidenceit would be more efficient, effective and deliver better outcomes. That belief is the premise for most of the current research into what is called ‘knowledge brokering’ linking research to policy and practice. It’s also what has led governments worldwide into investing significant resources into bridging the evidence-policy ‘gap, such as What Works Centres in the UK, Productivity Commissions in Australia and New Zealand, or the What Works Clearinghouse in the United States. Unfortunately, the existing literature isn’t clear about what knowledge brokering is, and whether it works.  Continue reading

Policy & Politics Winter Highlights collection free to access from 6 November 2019– 31st January 2020.

Sarah BrownSarah Brown,
Journal Manager of Policy & Politics

In celebration of this year’s APPAM research conference theme on diverse perspectives on issues and evidence, we bring you our latest research on that topic. To read the original research, download the articles below which are free to access until 31st January 2020. Happy reading! Continue reading

Is it time to give up on evidence-based policy? Four answers

richard frenchRichard D. French

This blog post was originally published on the Discover Society – Policy and Politics blog on 2 January 2019.

I have watched an enthusiastic, well-intentioned lobby for evidence-based policy on my campus for several years. However, I frequently reflect that if I were to opine publicly on evolutionary biology, or astrophysics, with as little knowledge of the subject as various scientifically trained persons hold forth on public policy, I would soon be read out of the intellectually reputable part of the university community – and rightly so.

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