Conceptual framework for how public institutions generate and use knowledge / Macro-context

[Editor’s note: This post is part a series produced by Vanesa Weyrauch and Leandro Echt from Politics&Ideas to present the conceptual framework developed under the project “Going beyond ‘Context matters”, supported by the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP). For an overall synthesis of the whole project, visit our interactive product]

How does context, at the government level, affect the production and use of knowledge in policy? Through an extensive literature review and interviews to experts and policymakers around the world, we have developed a conceptual framework that comprises six facets or ‘dimensions’ of context that any government institution aiming to improve the use of knowledge in public policy (as well as those working with these agencies) should consider carefully. These six dimensions fall into two categories: external and internal. The first two external dimensions are (1) macro-context; and (2) intra- and inter-relationships with state and non-state agents. The four internal dimensions are: (3) culture; (4) organizational capacity; (5) management and processes; and (6) core resources.

By Michael Coghlan under CC at

By Michael Coghlan under CC at

We will focus the first two posts on macro-context, which is comprised by all the overarching forces at the national level that establish the “bigger picture” in which policy is made. This is what is frequently referred as context in literature when explaining how a body of research or research piece has influenced or not a policy decision. We refer to it as macro-context since in our study we have decided to focus at the level of the public institution as the most direct context of any knowledge and policy interaction.

Surrounding each governmental agency there are a set of forces that compose the general external context, including political, economic, social and cultural systems that influence it. They shape opportunities and threats for state agencies in terms of using research to inform policy in two main ways:

(1) structural factors, which very rarely change in a significant way and could be regarded as the more constant and regular outside setting of policy institutions; and

(2) circumstantial factors, which emerge with particular weight every once in a while and open up very specific windows of opportunity for change.

We will center our attention on structural factors in this post and will delve into circumstantial ones the next one.

Structural factors include:

1. Factors that are usually acknowledged in literature on how the macro context affects efforts to promote a better use of knowledge in policy and are well beyond the sphere of influence of those who intend to strengthen how research is used in policy. They include extent of democracy/political/academic/media freedom, extent of development commitment of ruling elite, extent of culture of evidence use and government effectiveness, among other

2. Degree of power distribution in a society: this refers to factors such as the level of centralization versus decentralization of policy design and implementation, the checks and balances (or their lack of) between the executive, legislative and judicial branches, and the roles and responsibilities of some specific government agencies, which can enable more open entry points for research to be involved in policy making processes or, on the contrary, represent several constraints for it

Research is most likely to be used in open, transparent, democratic contexts with strong academic and civil society institutions, and free media. On the contrary, the concentration of power prevents pluralistic debate and thus the need for evidence to support competing views.

3. Consultation and participation in policy processes: a greater degree of democratic openness generally leads to the creation and institutionalization of norms that directly influence how evidence impacts policy. Increased consultation with policymakers has been identified as helping to establish a “conducive environment” for research use. These norms are often present in political systems with greater levels of accountability: when policymakers are held accountable for the “quality” of their decisions and scrutinized by other state or civil society organizations the need to inform decisions with available evidence from different sources is greater.

4. Knowledge regimes are the organizational and institutional machineries that generate data, research, policy recommendations and other ideas that influence public debate and policymaking. Within this, there are several key aspects to consider:

  • Availability of public data and information
  • Funding of the knowledge sector
  • Labour market
  • Critical thinking
  • Capacity to conduct policy relevant research
  • Social valuation of science

5. The existence of large strategic planning processes, generally at the national level, often represents an important framework for the generation and use of policy relevant research. These frameworks are spread from the very top down to all governmental institutions, to establish priorities for subsequent planning, reforms and capacity-building efforts. As a consequence, demand for related evidence is clearer and more concrete. However, sometimes planning can also act as a barrier to introducing new ideas emerging from research: they may be quickly disregarded if they do not fit under previously defined goals or if they could limit the implementation of existing officials’ plans.

6. Discretionary decision making and corruption: governance arrangements will play a key role in how a certain technical process/mechanism is taken in and implemented. Oversight mechanisms (checks and balances) exist to guard against discretionary decisions and to ensure accountability in the use of public resources, which create a better environment for research to be used in policy making. On the contrary, arbitrariness, corruption, rent-seeking, cronyism and “influence peddling” significantly diminish the potential for research to be used in policy.

7. Prevailing policy narratives and ideas: the way in which findings and proposals emerging from research are taken in and interpreted are heavily influenced by dominant policy discourses.  It is this important to understand how policy problems and potential solutions are socially constructed; the way that policymakers and others frame them is usually linked to how public issues are understood, prioritized and discussed. For instance, how decision-makers define state interests and formulate policies can reflect the manner in which the issue is presented by the specialists to whom they turn for advice in the face of uncertainty. Moreover, there is a need to understand what public sentiment (or “philosophy”) about the problem is since it will limit the extent to which a solution is considered appropriate and feasible.


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