Advancing evidence-informed policymaking: What’s culture got to do with it?

[This blog post by Abeba Tadese, Executive Director of Results for All, a global initiative of Results for America, was originally published at Results for All´s blog]

Over the last few months my team at Results for All has been engaged in consultations to assess the demand for a new global evidence network that could bring government policymakers together to exchange innovative ideas and learn from each other to advance evidence use in policymaking.

We have spoken to policymakers in government, members of the research and academic community, as well as non-governmental partners and initiatives in countries including Colombia, Chile, Finland, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, among many others. In every conversation, we heard about the importance of building or shifting the culture of evidence use. While we expect and assume that organizational culture will be different in varied contexts, we observed an interesting tendency in the policymaking community to speak about culture and evidence use in a way that suggested some universality across policy areas and levels of government. We noted further that in the context of evidence use, culture was often spoken of in broad and vague terms, such as “the culture is not developed enough,” “there is no culture of producing data,” or “mid-level technocrats have a lot of influence, and the ability to shift government culture.”

We are curious about the notion of an evidence use culture in government, and believe it is essential to better understand this culture so we can identify strategies to help strengthen evidence use in government. 

What is culture?

Courtesy of Olga Gadya under CC at

The challenge in understanding what a culture of evidence use in government looks like begins with the definition of culture itself, a term with many meanings. The first of Merriam Webster’s six definitions for culture describes it as a set of attitudes, values, goals, and practices shared across an institution or organization. Matsumoto et al suggest that while attitudes, values, and goals can be shared by a group, they can also be differentiated at an individual level.

This practical guide on changing culture developed by Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities initiative offers a definition of culture that gets at norms: “culture is the difference between what you tolerate and don’t tolerate.” According to the guide, culture embodies interactions between the different elements of a system such as people, beliefs, values, and attitudes. It is both causal and dependent on an organization’s knowledge, processes, and systems. It is not a singular thing – an individual or organization can be defined by multiple cultures. And it is both learned and a legacy that can be shaped over time. These conflicting and dynamic elements are what make culture hard to define.

Levels of culture

To understand culture as it relates to evidence use in government, it is helpful to explore the different levels in which culture presents itself in an organization. This includes artifacts, values, and assumptions, captured in a helpful visual here.

The visible and tangible elements of an organization are its artifacts. They are what you see when you walk into an office – desks, chairs, computers, plants, and filing systems. Reports, briefs, databases, and knowledge management systems are also types of artifacts. Artifacts can give a sense of office culture – we might for example, assume that a brightly colored office with an open floor plan has a creative mission, and sense entrenched bureaucracy in a dark, traditionally furnished office. Or we might expect an office with the technology for collecting and storing data, to routinely use evidence to inform policy and programs.

Yet these visual cues about an office’s culture may be misleading if we do not understand the organization’s values and the underlying assumptions that drive the daily work of its leaders and employees. For example, a government office may have the relevant evidence artifacts such as a knowledge management system or evaluations, but lack shared values to guide and encourage evidence use in decision making. But even when there are tangible artifacts, and a government office publicly articulates the value of using evidence in policymaking, if the underlying assumption is that using evidence is too costly or time consuming, the office is unlikely to translate its artifacts and values to systematic use of evidence in policy decisions. The challenge is that it can be hard to uncover hidden assumptions – feelings, perceptions, thoughts, or beliefs – that shape an organization’s visible artifacts and values. Artifacts and values can also be disconnected and even contradictory, most noticeably in government when financial commitments needed to support desired policies or policymaker behavior do not line up with a government’s stated values.

In the context of evidence-informed policymaking, it is important to build artifacts – the systems and processes governments need to ensure evidence is appropriately sourced and used to inform strategic thinking, policy development, implementation of policy options, and monitoring and evaluation. It is also critical to build and instill a shared and publicly expressed value in using evidence. But to influence behavior change and shift attitudes about evidence use, it is imperative that we consider the basic assumptions that guide how work is done and decisions are made. When what we say (reflecting values) does not align with how we behave (building and using artifacts), it is a sign that we need to dig deeper to understand the assumptions that govern our behavior

What should governments do to strengthen underlying assumptions and shift the culture toward evidence use?

    1. Take time to know the office – For many government offices, a conversation to understand barriers and challenges that inhibit evidence use, and clarify performance expectations and intended outcomes of policies, is a good starting point for those who would like to see greater use of evidence in policymaking. Build the communications skills to hold these conversations. A needs assessmentcan help to diagnose the gaps in knowledge, awareness, and capacity that can influence assumptions around what it takes to find, understand, and use evidence.
    2. Invest in leaders and champions – Strong role models who demonstrate the importance of using evidence through their actions can inspire others and help to change behavior patterns. Highlighting respected leaders who support innovation, change, and learning can positively influence other public officials’ assumptions and attitudes toward evidence use.
    3. Build knowledge and awareness – Policymakers who are confident in their ability to find, appraise, and synthesize evidence, and who understand the complexities of the policymaking process, are more likely to use evidence in their decision making process. Training courses or events such as dedicated research weeks can raise awareness about the value of using evidence and change assumptions that using evidence is too intimidating or complex.
    4. Create a compelling narrative – Ruth Levine gets at a moral argument for evidence-informed policymaking here and here. Moving from a compliance and monitoring mindset to a compelling narrative that points to failed outcomes for citizens when we do not use evidence can be a way to shift attitudes and behavior toward evidence use. Make responsible allocation and spending of limited government resources about doing right by citizens – achieving healthier populations, delivering quality education for all, accelerating financial empowerment for women.
    5. Promote networks and relationships – Whether formal or informal, peer interactions can help policymakers strengthen technical skills and shift attitudes and assumptions by exposing them to new ideas. As an organization, this could mean giving staff the time and space to connect with each other to share information, lessons, and experiences.
    6. Recognize and reward desired behavior – Different strategies can be used to motivate policymakers to use evidence in decision making, ranging from financial performance incentives to less resource-intensive award and recognition programs. Governments can use these strategies to promote and reward desired behavior, nudging policymakers to shift their assumptions and actions to align with organizational values.

It takes time and intentional effort to build or change the evidence culture in government. And to truly do so, we will need to scratch beneath the surface to investigate the underlying assumptions that influence whether individuals and organizations actually use evidence in their work. These assumptions determine whether values become empty statements and artifacts gather dust or, ultimately, whether evidence use becomes a cultural norm.

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