Framework to get knowledge into policy. Dimension #1: Macro-context: structural factors that draw clear lines

[Editor’s note: This post is part of a series focused on sharing findings from the conceptual framework developed under the study “Going beyond “Context matters”, conducted by P&I and INASP. The presented framework intends to be a lens to help policymakers, researchers, practitioners and donors better define windows of opportunity in different public institutions to focus efforts on promoting better interaction between knowledge and policy.


In a recent post, we have presented the whole 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.Big picture

This series will present each dimension and its sub-dimensions, starting with macro-context.

No one would deny that the macro-context plays a significant role in why, how and if State agencies are able to generate and use knowledge to inform public policies. This is why we have included it as the first dimension of our framework.

We consider macro-context as the over-arching forces at the national level that establish the “bigger picture” in which policy is made and, consequently, how research can or cannot inform it. It is the general external context for each policymaking institution, including political, economic, social and cultural systems.

These forces 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.

In this post, we share some synthetized findings about structural factors, which include:

1. Usual factors mentioned in literature

There is already significant literature on how the macro context affects efforts to promote a better use of knowledge in policy. Usually, this literature focuses on large contextual factors that are well beyond the sphere of influence of those who intend to strengthen how research is used in policy. Some of them are: extent of democracy/political freedom , extent of academic freedom, extent of media freedom, extent of development commitment of ruling elite (especially to the poorest) and culture of evidence use.

These are certainly forces that define the big picture for how governmental institutions behave and can or cannot enable change for better use of knowledge. However, based on interviewees’ experiences, case studies and our own experience, there are, in addition to these general strands, other stable and concrete structural and circumstantial factors that more directly influence efforts at the institutional level.

2. Degree of power distribution in the political system

In theory, democracies imply greater accountability of governments, which works usually as a greater incentive to improve policy and performance. They also imply the existence of “more open” entry points into the policymaking process for diverse stakeholders and fewer constraints on communication about these.

However, there is still no evidence in literature that tells exactly how a closed political system affects the impact of research on policymaking.

Factors such as the level of centralization versus decentralization of policy design and implementation, the checks and balances (or the lack thereof) between the executive, legislative and judicial branches, and the roles and responsibilities of some specific government agencies can all play a significant role.

According to Liverani et al. (2013), centralized political systems are likely to be less open to the uptake of research findings than decentralized systems, with the exception of some specific government units. The concentration of power prevents pluralistic debate and thus the need for evidence to support competing views.

Another important factor is the weight of congress/parliament in the decision making process. Newman, et al. (2013) found that, while parliamentary or elected representatives are often the target of efforts to increase research use, in many countries they actually have weak influence over policy, which is made by the executive.  A key determinant of the effectiveness of legislators, and thus their links with research, is the extent to which other important power holders –most importantly executives and parties– cede, lose, share, exchange or let slip the power they hold.

Power distribution among political parties and their degree of consolidation are also very important. According to Tanaka, Barrenechea and Morel, strong and consolidated parties are important in connecting the world of knowledge production with the world of public policies (2011:36).

On the contrary, weak parties often follow personal and discretionary criteria, and increase the influence of de facto powers and informal networks in policy decisions.

3. Consultation and participation in policy processes and accountability

A greater degree of democratic openness generally leads to the creation and institutionalization of norms on consultation and participation in policy processes, which directly influence how evidence impacts policy. Increased consultation with policymakers has been identified as helping to establish a “conducive environment” for research use (Sumner, Crichton, Theobald, Zulu and Parkhurst, 2011:6). 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 – including the media – the need to inform decisions with available evidence from different sources is greater. The existence or absence of a participatory policy process contrasts with situations in many developing countries (and, often, in developed countries too). In such situations, policies are decided by one minister after consultation with one or two advisors, restricting the extent to which other relevant stakeholders can participate in these processes.

4. Knowledge regime

Campbell and Pedersen (2013:3) define knowledge regimes as “the organizational and institutional machinery that generates data, research, policy recommendations and other ideas that influence public debate and policymaking”.

Within this, there are several key aspects to consider, such as:

  • Availability of public data and information: Where there is shortage of basic statistical and other data, which are fundamental to drawing reliable conclusions, policy arguments may be more likely to turn on issues of power and prejudice than on evidence. This is also linked to the existence of laws on public and private access to information.
  • Funding of the knowledge sector. The average gross domestic product (GDP) countries spend on research and development is reported to be 2%, while Asia, Latin America and Caribbean, and Africa are each closer to 0.8% (World Bank, 2011). Nielsen (2010) shows that in countries that have invested highly in research and development, the government is not the only source of demand nor is it the only source of supply. Demand stimulates domestic capacity, both government and private sector, to provide dynamic and expert research capability.
  • Critical thinking. Regarding the country’s educational system it is also important to assess whether it promotes critical thinking. In this sense, low levels of evidence literacy in policymaking institutions have been linked to low levels of evidence literacy in society, and an education system that did not instill a culture of critical inquiry in students (Newman et al., 2013).
  • The social valuation of science. Garcé (2013) suggests that: “In countries where a more rationalist culture predominates, the demand for research tends to be more intense and recognises that science can be neutral. In countries characterized by political cultures that are skeptical of expert knowledge, there will be less demand for scientific knowledge and knowledge will not be used as a tool toward political ends” (2013:25)

5. The existence of large strategic planning processes

Generally at the national level, often these processes represent 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. It should be noted, however, that 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

When governments are characterized by a lack of transparency and of accountability, excessive intervention, a lack of delegation, and poor results on the ground, this leads to arbitrariness, corruption, rent-seeking, cronyism and “influence peddling”, all of which significantly diminish the potential for research to be used in policy.

Moreover, laws and regulations alone do not seriously challenge entrenched behaviour nor do they overturn the power of vested interests by those who benefit from existing arrangements.

Forging strong and sustainable links between research and policy (especially on the fiscal front) may only be possible if policymakers are willing and capable of setting up good governance and resisting rent-seeking groups. The practical implications of this should not be underestimated. Interventions that approach governmental institutions without a thorough assessment of the political economy of how decisions are made and behaviours incentivized –including the degree of arbitrariness and corruption– are doomed to experience serious difficulties in creating genuine and sustainable change.

So, how do these structural factors directly affect strategic and everyday efforts of those wanting to promote change within their public institutions? This is an important questions to bear in mind and thus identify if there are any major forces or developments that can significantly affect positively or negatively new ideas and processes.

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