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

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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

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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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Special Issue: Transformational change through Public Policy

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