Conceptual framework for how public institutions generate and use knowledge / Macro-context (Circumstantial factors)

[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).]
By screenpunk at under CC

By screenpunk at under CC

We have focused our first post of the series on the structural factors of macro-context, which very rarely change in a significant way and could be regarded as the more constant and regular outside setting of policy institutions, including extent of democracy/political/academic/media freedom, degree of power distribution in a society, and consultation and participation in policy processes, among others.

In this post, we will center our attention on circumstantial factors, which emerge with particular weight every once in a while and open up very specific windows of opportunity for change.

These factors include:

  • Popular pressure and the desire for faster economic growth and improved public services frequently motivate reform. For example, in South Africa there was considerable pressure to improve performance of the public sector, with monitoring and evaluation (M&E) seen as a key tool for doing. This resulted in high-level political commitment for a strong M&E system from the president, cabinet and responsible minister. This commitment facilitated the rapid establishment of the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation (DPME) and the increase of its capacity to around 200 staff.

However, sometimes, public opinion may not necessarily have an impact on the uptake of research.  For example, during the development of a national smoke-free law in New Zealand, politicians who doubted the evidence were willing to go against the views of 90% of the population. This was linked partly to the strength of the tobacco industry and its allies, and in particular their ability to persuade politicians that there was significant doubt about the health risks of second-hand smoke (Thomson, Wilson and Howden-Chapman :2007).

  • Crises and transitions also open up unique windows of opportunity for incorporating research into policy. Many lead to short-lived “policy windows” during which an institution is temporarily more receptive to research uptake. For example, during regime change in Singapore, ideas associated with the old regime were discredited and disorganized. This opened up space for new attitudes towards knowledge and creating a more conducive environment for research use (Jones, 2009). The occurrence of natural disaster, for instance, can also give rise to demand for evidence. However, the urgency to reach a consensus for decision-making in such a setting often hinders the possibility of resorting to new sources of information.

Electoral processes and transitions in the government administration are also key milestones when it comes to the use of evidence. Regarding the former, it is important to look at the tone of the electoral campaign, and whether electoral candidates and their teams are open or averse to incorporating evidence into their discourses. For instance, do candidates explain what they will do, how, when and with whom? Does the policy debate revolve around vague references to universally desirable aims without specifying how these initiatives will be financed? What is the concrete action plan that will be employed to reach the proposed objectives? And what are the different alternatives to consider? Macro factors such as polarization might also affect references to evidence in candidates’ proposals and direct the discussion towards personal statements, slights on the competitors and/or their political spaces, etc.

Finally, societies and political systems undergoing transition have generated new opportunities for evidence use in policy (e.g. South Africa and Vietnam). Indeed, transitions at the government administration are also moments in which some policymakers are interested to show ‘how well’ their programs or agencies have been working, looking to survive in the next period. Lots of evaluations are conducted at the end of one government administration or at the beginning of a new one, and different diagnoses or policies and also organizational designs are requested.

In conclusion, even though circumstantial factors are well beyond our control, we should keep them in the radar to be ready to promote a better production and use of knowledge in policy when they emerge. Constant awareness of movements in the political and social scenario is a smart strategy to effectively deal with macro-context as an agent of change.

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