Is evidence enough to underpin policy? Horizontal policy-making in Chile

However different policy processes might be around the world, including evidence in them seems generally desirable. The question is whether more is always better, or in other words, whether technically sound policy is a sufficient condition for continued development.

Chile is increasingly praised for its political stability and economic success, which has led it to become the first South American country to be a member of the OECD. In a recent article at Foreign Affairs magazine, R. Benedikter and K. Siepmann focus on the Mattes, a Chilean family that have succeeded in building one of the largest paper companies in the region. Interestingly, they argue that the Mattes’ strongest influence has come from funding think tanks:

“But their biggest impact on Chile has not come from their charitable works, or even from the success of their companies. Rather, for better or worse, it has come through their championing of neoliberalism.”

“(…) To be sure, Eliodoro was never directly involved in politics, but he has built up considerable political influence. According to Ernesto Carmona Ulloa, author of the book The Owners of Chile (Los Dueños de Chile), most topics that wind up on the political agenda of the country’s conservative parties were first thought up in the academic and intellectual centers that Eliodoro funds, especially at the Centro de Estudios Públicos, which he launched in 1980.”

‘For better or worse’? The fact that it was through the promotion of knowledge that this political agenda was pushed forward sounds legitimate – even like a success story for research organizations in other countries that seek policy relevance. Benedikt and Siepmann argue, however, that the recipes these privately-funded think tanks have proposed have coupled economic success with ‘lacklustre social and political development’. Accordingly, an article by Marco Moreno published at Enfoques magazine posits that the new development challenges the country faces require a more ‘horizontal’ policymaking process, which is not just based on technical criteria and expert knowledge, but also relies upon the inclusion of a wider range of constituents. Although this new ‘horizontal’ scheme has been embraced publicly by government officials, the author claims, the main actors involved in policymaking are either not entirely persuaded by it or unable to adapt their work to it.

Although the policymaking process is highly institutionalized in Chile, Moreno claims it is often circumvented through practices and informal networks where the biggest decisions regarding policy are actually made. Given that cabinet ministers, the ‘techno-bureaucracy’, to a lesser extent political parties and think tanks play the biggest roles in influencing policy, there seems to be a ‘technical bias’ which has usually precluded the public from participating in how social problems are defined and what policies are devised to tackle them.

The author brings an interesting account of the changing role of think tanks in the last three decades, since their creation around 1980. Originally created to host intellectuals, academics and researchers pushed out of universities by the dictatorship, they became consensus catalysts during the transition back to democracy in the early 1990s. Since then, they have focused on promoting ideas for public innovation, particularly through an agenda of state reform (for a full account of Chilean Think Tanks and their role in policy processes refer to M. Cociña and S. Toro (2009, edited by E. Mendizabal and K. Sample)).

It is during this last period when parties lost the upper hand in devising policy and when the legislative has grown dependent on support and assessment from think tanks. In consequence, although they have no formal power, some research organizations have an unprecedented space to influence policy that other more traditional political actors and community-based groups lack.

Beneath the prevalence of technocratic policymaking lies a linear and hierarchical way of thinking, according to which social dynamics are the result of cause-effect relationships that are relatively constant and can be identified. To the extent that civil servants and researchers operate under this framework, they will be ill-positioned to engage with constituent groups in order to define public problems.

To conclude, the author proposes that hierarchically devised policy, even if technically sound, cannot guarantee successful government at this stage in Chilean politics. Just as the lack of competent bureaucratic structures can lead to cronyism and corruption, completely autonomous bureaucracies that are detached from the citizenship may fail to deliver a development dividend. He calls for greater transparency in think tanks and for the inclusion of constituent groups in their policy proposals. Ultimately, he claims, think tanks should strive to be consensus catalysts with greater democratic legitimacy.

In similar fashion, Ghanaian researcher Tony Dogbe has argued within the Evidence-Based Policy in Development Network (EBPDN) that NGOs and think tanks should aim at informing citizens rather than elites, since collective action is the most effective way to push for change. Recent political events like the student protests that have stirred Chile since 2011 (and similar protest episodes elsewhere) can be interpreted as a call for such an approach.