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Evidence Based Policy + Citizen Participation: can they be combined?

[Editor’s note: This post was written by René Cardoso Baltazar (@rcardosob), strategic advisor to the International Foundation for the Development of Reliable Governments (FIDEGOC). It is a response to Andrea Ordóñez’s paper “Defining problems or providing solutions? The role of ideas in policy debates”].

Reading Andrea Ordóñez’ latest work on the role of ideas in policy and her critique of evidence based policy got me thinking on my own experience working with governments on issues of quality, transparency and accountability. I noticed that the concept of citizen participation was not discussed in her work so far although it is a key element in the policymaking process, principally in the validation phase.

In the last decade we have witnessed the digital revolution. Previously, we lived under the motto “information is power”. Nowadays we live times in which information is at hand for everyone, everywhere, all the time, making information devalued and replaced by knowledge; we can conclude that now for most people (in public and private sectors) “knowledge is power”.

Under this premise we can now discuss our main interest: public policies. These, along with its plans, programs and projects, must be formulated from a knowledge-based perspective in order to ensure their effectiveness. Furthermore, I believe that this knowledge based perspective ought to be sustained by the analysis of existing evidence. In my opinion, however, it is not only fundamental to base policies on evidence (EBP) but also to include citizen participation, which is an equally important and complementary part of the public policy cycle.

The citizen participation concept originates from the need of wider social involvement in public activities for not only making the public’s interests taken into account, but also for controlling governmental decisions that directly affect their communities. This is why we have to understand that policymaking cannot be a one-sided effort from a government’s desk. Rather, it requires a citizen debate through the existing mechanisms of participation for the articulation between the State and its citizens. Public policies, in sum, should not be based only on the (good) ideas of those elected into office, but should also include available evidence available and the public’s opinions and demands.

In my opinion, the importance of allowing for citizen participation in the different moments of the policy cycle lies in the hypothesis that achieving the objectives of a given policy highly depends on the society’s civic commitment to them. This includes society’s ability to know the programs, participate in them, evaluate the results and ask for accountability. In this sense, public participation is the additional component that is required to bridge the gap between the values and ideologies of society and the technical solutions of evidence-based policy.

It is not sufficient for public policy to be based on evidence; it must include citizen participation in order to achieve a real appropriation from the broad society. To the extent that we take into account citizens’ views in the decision making process and the vision of future policies, the plans, programs and projects will receive more and better public adoption, empathy and social control by the beneficiaries.

While it is true that society has the civic responsibility of watching over the government plans, programs and projects, it also has the right to call for the continuity of the good practices that had generated impact results, no matter if these have been achieved by previous governments, different parties, or the vision of State has changed. Hence, I make emphasis in the importance of a closed interrelation between Evidence Based Policy and an active Citizen Participation for the continuity of good policies.

For example, the Citizen Observatories in Bogota (Colombia), follow up the government’s actions, budget, and results. Additionally, they have set up a holistic system of accountability that allows any citizen to observe the inconsistencies in government processes. This accountability system and its findings were taken into account in the construction of the Policy of Transparency, Integrity and Fight against Corruption that the Veeduría Distrital[1]  is currently generating.

Unfortunately for most developing countries, policymaking has been overtly used for politicking. As a result, the particular interests of powerful stakeholders prevail over those of the majority. Furthermore, political parties have kidnapped politics’, thereby curtailing citizen participation and establishing mechanisms of participation designed with electoral purposes for their own benefit. Moreover, in some countries, populist strategies along with little or no accountability, have allowed many politicians to establish unsustainable policies that generate economic and social underdevelopment in the long-term.

Without citizen participation and the application of research for the design, implementation and evaluation of public policies, we will continue to have a unilateral strategic plan with only partial results. In this scenario, the problem definition and the design of the solutions will have the risk of being made from a politicized perspective.

In fact, one of the main problems during participatory evaluation of policies is that the citizens do not feel identified with the results obtained by the policies in question. This usually happens because the evaluations (ex ante and ex post) are not socialized to the beneficiaries of the programs. Inevitably, citizens do not to recognize the programs and projects as the source of the improvements in their well-being. This is a clear example of how evidence and participation must interact.

We can conclude that policymaking benefits from the use of evidence, but also that it requires an understanding of the social and economic context. Participatory mechanisms can be important tools to understand such context. Combining participation and evidence empowers society with tools to monitor and evaluate policies that can yield into an integral assessment of the government, and the appropriation of such policies by citizens.


[1] Veeduría Distrital is a control entity in Bogotá, Colombia. It has similar functions of the Comptroller but with a preventive focus. The Veeduría Distrital takes into account historical data and regulations for making the transparency policy, it examines corruption perceptions and it helps monitor and evaluate policy through the Citizen Observatories.