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Three worthwhile questions on public philosophies

[Editor’s note: This reflection is based on our paper “Defining problems or providing solutions? The role of ideas in policy debates”. It is part of a series of posts on Ideas and Evidence Based Policy.]

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One level of ideas is that of public philosophies, or zeitgeist. It is the wider framework of assumptions where the policy debate takes place that is usually not widely criticized. For example, the belief that local governments are more attuned to citizen’s needs that led to decentralization in many countries.

Changing such structures is not easy, but understanding it may certainly give researchers a better grasp on how research may affect the policy process. However, exploring the public philosophy in place is a complex endeavor. Just like with the concept of ‘context’, it might be difficult to untangle its many dimensions. This is why in the working paper I propose three questions worth exploring, specifically to analyze the link between research and policy.

1.       How is knowledge valued in general at a specific time and place? Which knowledge is valued?

Through this question, we try to assess if knowledge is considered relevant in a given context. Societies probably fluctuate between love and apathy to knowledge. If knowledge produced by scientists is not highly regarded in society, it is unlikely that research will have an impact. In the cases analyzed in the paper, there was a positive take on researchers and policy professionals. Many countries in the Global South have had unprofessional bureaucracies, corrupt officials or populist leaders. If these had a negative impact, a positive reaction towards those that are more prepared may emerge. In contrast, in settings were science, experts and researchers’ work has had a negative effect on the public, then research may not be as relevant. Values and beliefs may play a more relevant role. Additionally, depending on the policy debate, scientific knowledge can be regarded as more or less relevant. Certain policy debates are not about the facts, but about values.

2.       What is more relevant, change or continuity?

Borrowed slightly from the ecological concept of how ecosystems adapt through different phases, this questions focuses on whether change or continuity is more relevant. In ecology, systems are portrayed as constantly evolving, sometimes change occurs quickly and sometimes things stay fixed. Different factors may drive a change from stability to a more fluid stage.

In the case of policy debates, it is relevant to explore whether the public sentiment pushes towards change or continuity in relation to the given policy. This is very relevant to the way problems are portrayed, and what solutions are considered. For example if there is a public sentiment that change is required, ideas are likely to be portrayed as innovative to gain traction with the public. Good ideas that are related with the status quo may not even be considered. In the other hand, when the public sentiment is that policies are correct, and no change is needed, policy reforms may be portrayed as incremental: small steps forward but strongly connected to previous ideas. These different sentiments may affect the type of research that is considered more useful or reliable.

3.       What is the expected role of government in society?

Finally, since our interest here is on public policies, it is crucial to explore what are the standpoints on the role of government in society. After all, public policies are what governments do or not do in relation to an issue.

Does the public philosophy state that the government must play an important role? Or is it that governments’ actions should be minimized? One can easily see that if the answer to this question affects the way solutions are portrayed. In the cases were the government has an important role, policy solutions that give power to the government might be better received. Otherwise, policies that promote different actions by others outside government might seem relevant. In extreme cases, a problem might not seem suitable to be solved by public policies.

In research and policy analysis, the stakeholders involved are a crucial aspect, and among them governments are at the top of the list. Researchers may frame questions differently, and with different stakeholders depending on the role that the government and others are supposed to play according to the prevailing public philosophy.

As you can already notice, this is a two-way street, where the public philosophy can be affected by research, and research may be also affected by it. In this sense, research again does not seem to be neutral, but contextual to – among other things – the public philosophy of the time.

Do you believe research has historically played an important role in configuring public philosophies?