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The use of evidence in the policy making process: are citizens users or sources of information?

[Editor’s note: This post is part of a series produced by Leandro Echt and Vanesa Weyrauch from Politics&Ideas to share what we learn through the development and conduction of an online course targeted to policymakers in Latin America on the use of research in policy.]

 

Information is not incorporated to public policy processes exclusively by experts (whether individuals or organization) or public servants. Far from an elitist view of this process, it is also necessary to consider citizens as significant players when thinking about the processes tending to incorporate information to the decision-making process.

On one hand, they become more relevant as users of the information generated by governments and other players. The information provided by the State regarding its policies (from justifying them based on population data bases or compared evidence, to their results) is a very valuable element for citizens to make decisions regarding, for example, their preferences on elections. At the same time, an active information communication strategy for citizens whether direct (through governmental agency official websites, nationwide TV and radio broadcasts, etc.) or indirect (through the media), shall create a virtuous circle that, in turn, shall foster citizens’ interest in public information and result in better informed citizens with more freedom to exercise their rights (to know other initiatives that seek to provide citizens with reliable information, see box “Public speech verification”). In short, it is important for governments to be willing to inform citizens why they make certain decisions, as well as their results.

On the other hand, citizens are a very valuable source of information when making certain public policy decisions. Governments often commission quantitative studies that allow them to obtain an insight on the voters or citizens they serve: which are society’s main problems, which initiatives are better accepted by citizens, etc.

It is also useful to develop citizen consultation online systems. Data analysis allows them to build arguments or to know the risks they take when taking certain measures that, for example, may not be popular but are necessary. Government teams may discuss said data in order to make more strategic decisions, not only based on the problem to solve, but also on their position before citizens and voters.

Besides quantitative studies, another method that shows citizens’ relevance as sources of information is participatory budgets, especially at local level. It is a participation system that incorporates citizen debate, agreement and vote as tools that allow allocating part of the Municipal Budget to the implementation of proposals and projects people deem necessary for their district. In Latin America, some municipalities and cities that implement or have implemented participatory budgets are Porto Alegre and Belo Horizonte in Brazil, Rosario and Córdoba in Argentina, Montevideo in Uruguay, Villa El Salvador in Peru and Cotacachi in Ecuador.

Many of these processes start with a general participatory diagnosis in order to assess the level of knowledge of district citizens’ experiences. In fact, this is one of the principles of participatory budgets: “Supporting the role of neighbors as an authorized voice to diagnose and assess neighborhood priorities” (Municipality of Rosario).

At the same time, citizen consultation methods, like participatory budgets “allow not only to obtain a better knowledge of the administration job from the citizens standpoint but also to create an environment for dialog between technicians and neighbors which can be very fruitful for both parties since it fosters mutual knowledge and the adoption of broader points of view” (Martínez and Arena, 2013).

Public speech verification, fact-checking or data journalism is another trend that is growing around the world, and that address the citizens as key players that need information to make public decisions. Fact-checking aims at verifying the way public speeches match the facts. Based on source analysis and other techniques (such as data cross-matching, consultations with specialists), it tries to provide citizens with more elements to understand reality and perform a critical analysis of what happens around them.

So I have gone through different processes that address the citizens as stakeholders with the capacity to contribute with useful or information to the public decisions, or consumers of critical evidence to make their own decisions. Considering their potential contribution to the policy process will ensure a more democratic approach to decision-making and will also educate new generations on the importance of keeping themselves informed and participate actively of the public life.

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