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The role of evidence in policy making: “I use more information from those for whom I have a certain affection”

This interview is part of a wider series of talks with current and former officials, politicians and researchers from different countries in Latin America about the role of research and information in the public policy process. Interviews are an input to the development of an upcoming online course produced by P&I aimed at promoting the use of evidence to inform policy decisions in Latin America.

Nicolás Ducoté is Councilman for Pilar, a district of the province of Buenos Aires, Argentina. He also served as Under Secretary for Political Affairs at the Ministry of Government of Buenos Aires. He is co-founder of the think tank CIPPEC, where he served as Executive Director from 2000 to 2010.

How can evidence generated by research be used in the policy making process based on your experience?

Within the State, we can find certain policy makers interested in counting with a portfolio of policy proposals or initiatives when making decisions or for bringing them closer to the highest decision-making levels. Their own knowledge about a certain topic is not always enough and sometimes they do not have the time to think about the different public policy issues they face with an intellectual approach, nor have a team that can help them with that. To build this portfolio of ideas and proposals, they can turn to a market of organizations and individuals specialized in different public policy issues.

What are the factors that you consider when making policy decisions?

Firstly, I analyze the consequences of my actions in terms of public policy and electoral politics: how will a certain decision affect or benefit the neighbors, the local community or the local state? And at the same time, what effect will that decision have on my political space, my bosses, my team and my career? In addition, one should analyze the feasibility of the decision and consider the chances of success and influence, in order to balance efforts and results. It always helps to count with analytical tools and mind maps that allow you to consider the feasibility of what you want to pursue.

In what specific situations do you or your team turn to the evidence generated by research make policy decisions?

The evidence on what has worked (and not) at other times and contexts is very timely when designing policy interventions. For instance, such research is valuable for brainstorming ideas about what has succeeded, what could be improved, etc.

I also turn to information when I need to comment, decide or vote on a particular issue. Comparative evidence is very informative in these cases. For example, some time ago a tender was launched in the area of public transport. To consider the best course of action we needed to perform some preliminary analysis, so we invited different people linked to universities to collaborate with a study comparing how different municipalities perform regarding their public transport. It is important to know the opinion of those analytical profiles that can convey the pros and cons of making certain decisions or carrying out a new initiative.

What kind of research do you typically need?

In general, quantitative studies tend to be more useful, especially if they allow you to know the perceptions of the electorate and citizenship to which the policy maker must serve. The analysis of quantitative data allows to build arguments, and know the risks involved in making decisions that may not be popular, but are necessary. Most policy makers do not have the skills to address, or even process, those type of studies.

It is also useful to develop online consultation mechanisms with citizens. The ideal scenario is to have the results of the studies privately (without making them public), so they can be discussed within the team to make the most strategic decisions, not only in terms of solving the problem, but also in terms of how diverse decisions would be perceived among the citizens and the electorate.

Furthermore, qualitative studies are not so useful, since such information can be gathered more easily by policy makers through dialogue with their teams, peers or citizens.

What are the most frequent sources of information? How and why do you choose them?

In my case, one of the most useful sources are other politicians who are in the same field, pursue similar objectives or are going through similar experiences. I find this dialogue between peers with experience in politics, whether they belong to the same party or other political spaces, extremely useful to analyze, consider and establish courses of action.

I also turn to universities, research institutes and experts. And, to a lesser extent, to journalists. The latter usually have a lot of information, know the sources, and know who to ask about different topics. That is, journalists bring you a broad overview of the key voices in the debate on certain issues. Ideally, you can have that information before it is published in the media.

What is more useful: the research generated externally or the information generated internally?

External sources are more credible to me. The information generated within the state structures are usually skewed depending on the people involved in its production. I do not rule it out, but I believe that both are complementary. What also happens is that, as a policy maker, one talks more often with other colleagues, so having the opportunity to talk with external specialists may be more useful.

What are the formats that you or your teams prefer to receive evidence?

I am an avid consumer of written and printed material, but I usually present information in digital format. That is, I have a preference for written and printed inputs and for digital and more dynamic outputs. Within my team, there is a person fully dedicated to search information, especially compared data. However, when communicating, I turn circumstantially to professionals with design and other communication skills.

However, it is very rare that I have the chance to read documents with more than five or ten pages; I rarely did that since I served as a public official. In general, I consume information that has been already processed by my team or others I trust. For example, if I have to make decisions on the budget, I try to have the analysis of economists and experts who can bring me summaries with the information already processed. If I do not count with anyone who is able to process that information in time to make decisions, then that issue is beyond my capacity to make decisions. I limit my opinions on the issues in which I do not have adequate knowledge.

What factors facilitate and hinder the use of research in public policy?

From my experience, I can suggest that it is necessary that someone, somehow, argues and convinces the decision maker that certain information is helpful. That is, it is not natural that policy makers and politicians will be proactive in searching information. It is more natural that someone “sells” the information to the decision maker, than the policy maker “buys” it on its own.

In my case, there were many more times when I have been the subject of those who take the initiative to influence my decisions, than those in which I have proactively searched information. I consume information from those who make the greatest efforts to bring it to me, and explain me why what I’m reading is worth based on the issue that I want to address. Without the initiative of those who have the information, it is likely that that research won’t be used, because the flow of information is huge and time is extremely scarce.

Moreover, another factor that facilitates the use of the information is the technical and emotional legitimacy of the source. The technical legitimacy is linked to the specific knowledge on any topic. Emotional legitimacy is related to the confidence between the policy maker and the source, and how much the latter knows the decision maker, his context and objectives. In my case, I use more information from those for whom I have a certain affection.

What skills should public officials have to better use evidence and promote its use within their workspaces?

An important skill is related to a human approach: the willingness to dialogue. It is critical to build relationships that will be functional from the point of view of data analysis (whether they are analysts, academics, journalists, etc.). For example, if you’re a civil servant who works in environmental issues, it is important that you build networks of support, discussion, contention or debate on those topics.

Another important skill is attitudinal: the policy maker must separate some time in his schedule to think about and discuss the information that flows in his area of intervention. He must have the discipline to create those spaces, at least thirty to forty minutes a week. The available information does not act by its own: you need to create the vacuum to then fill the glass.

Finally, I think the policy maker should be willing to communicate to the citizenship and to his team why certain decisions are made. The evidence is extremely useful when justifying why it is important to make this or that decision.

What would you recommend to the policy makers who want to increase the use of research in their work spaces?

Actually, I do not think that policy makers consider the use evidence to make decisions a relevant issue. On the contrary, it often begins with a personal or political interest: what can help me make decisions? That said, what a leader can promote are criteria for decision making within the team: we use comparative evidence, we analyze data, etc.

On the other hand, it is very low the priority that policy makers give to training their teams, since the former tend to be in its position for a short time, so often they have other priorities.

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