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

SPECIAL ISSUE BLOG SERIES: Blog 3 – Behavioural insights teams in practice: nudge missions and methods on trial

Special issue blog series on advancing our understanding of the politics behind nudge and the ‘behavioural insights’ trend in public policy.

Ball and HeadSarah Ball and Brian W. Head

They go by a variety of names; nudge units, behavioural insights (BI) teams and behavioural economics teams. However, they all owe a debt to the pioneering work of the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) in the United Kingdom (UK). Based on behavioural research on the ‘irrational’ behaviours of citizens and/or policy target audiences, ‘nudge’ instruments have been tested through rigorous research in the form of randomised controlled trials. Using this approach, the BIT UK has had a significant impact on the policy innovation landscape across the globe. Teams have emerged in Europe, the US, Canada, Japan, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Peru, Australia, New Zealand and many more countries.     

Our research recently published in Policy & Politics explores the BI phenomena as it emerged in Australia, from which we derive analysis relevant to global actors and governments engaged BI. In two independent exploratory studies, we sought to understand how such teams actually operate in practice. One study was an in-depth observational study of staff in the Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian Government (BETA). The other was an interview-based study of three teams, namely, those operating in two state governments, New South Wales and Victoria, together with the Australian government’s BETA. Continue reading