Policy insights on the use of evidence to reflect on South Africa’s 20 years of democracy

Policy insights on the use of evidence to reflect on South Africa’s 20 years of democracy

An introduction by Laurenz Langer to Harsha Dayal´s Knowledge Sector Initiative Working Paper 7

As researchers in the evidence-informed decision-making (EIDM) space, we often debate, sometimes write about, and very seldom practically engage in activities designed to increase decision-makers’ use of evidence. We therefore seem to approach EIDM from a suppliers’ perspective calling for and deliberating on how to enhance demand for evidence across decision-making bodies in public policy and practice. Alas, this logic bypasses the very actors assumed to benefit from an increased use of evidence, that is decision-makers themselves.  While beating the drum of evidence-informed decisions, are we making inherent assumptions that current decisions are evidence uninformed? And what about decision-making processes in which evidence has been considered, but decision-makers chose to not prioritise the research findings in the eventual policy designs – would we, as researchers, accept these as evidence-informed decisions?  And if we talk about the big issue of Demand, are we unpacking individual factors such as human’s behavioural biases and organizational structures and processes in which any type of decision-making is embedded.  The systematic use of evidence constitutes a behaviour change in most contexts. Behaviour change in return requires capability, motivation, and opportunity to change (see Michie and colleagues’ behaviour change wheel), and is further constrained and mitigated by the prevailing political economy. In short, EIDM advocates might want to consider that in the end when it comes down to the action, the behavior of using evidence, that: It`s the decision-maker, stupid! An apolitical, depersonalized, and non-structural portray of decision-makers might lead us to research and design text-book interventions of little external validity.

Admittedly, it is not the easiest task for actors outside the decision-making bodies to gain an in-depth understanding of the different contextual factors at play in the many different types of organizations departments, units etc.  There are some fascinating studies unpacking the views and needs of decision-makers, e.g. the World Bank claiming most development policymakers to be loss-averse, a South African survey showing senior government officials interrogating their own use of evidence, a social network analysis of the flow (and bottlenecks) of evidence through decision-makers’ social networks, and ODI’s RAPID programme helping all of us to work and think more politically in EIDM. However, these studies merely scratch the surface and shine a light on how important it is to better understand these processes and structures of decision-making as well as the decision-makers themselves. Further, what most these studies have in common is that they are initiated by people asking decision-makers about their perceptions, biases, needs, etc. rather than decision-makers providing their own narrative and account of the challenges and successes of using evidence. Decision-makers’ own voices thus are still channeled through the interpretation of researchers or intermediaries.

In this context, Harsha Dayal, Director: Research Management at South Africa’s Department of Planning, Monitoring, and Evaluation has published a highly unusual paper. In Using Evidence to Reflect on South Africa’s 20 Years of Democracy, she provides in-depth insights on how she and colleagues navigate the decision-making context within South African government structures to provide room and mechanisms for the use of evidence. Reflecting on the 20 year review, a government-led initiative to review the administration’s work and progress based on a range of different types of evidence, she outlines and contextualises the remit and mandate of EIDM from a decision-makers’ perspective. Her paper is full of practical examples, organizational insights, and lightbulb moments on how to understand and maneuver the often unspoken ‘rules of the game’ in the public sector in order to enhance the mandate of evidence within decision-making. In short, it is a treasure trove of insights for anybody interested in the practice of EIDM. For example, have you ever wondered:

  • What do you do if senior public service managers are more excited about the idea and methods of EIDM than the academics supposed to generate such evidence?
  • How do you advocate for the use of social science evidence to decision-makers, if social science ‘findings’ where historically used to justify apartheid policies that oppressed and forced the very same decision-makers into political resistance?
  • Are public sector officials positioned to also contribute to knowledge generation on what works, why it works/does not work, for whom and in what contexts?
  • How do you bring together research, government, business, and civil society to use data and information to develop an evidence-informed narrative of where South Africa has come from as a country, how it arrived at where it is today, and what it needs to do going forward?
  • What happens if you make senior government officials to review the evidence on the government’s impact using critical appraisal, interpretation, and synthesis skills
  • What is the role of institutional restructuring in supporting and embedding evidence use?

So, if you would like to know what the difference might be between ‘evidence thinking’ and evidence-informed decision-making, and whether relationships and collaborative networks have a role to play in conceptualising evidence use within contextual realities (which is our very own focus), then you will have to read the full paper which is available open-access here. I highly encourage you to do so, and on the Africa Evidence Network blog we will publish a number of follow on posts over the next weeks to tease out the implications of Harsha’s paper for our own work. Staying true to one of the key messages of the paper though, your reflections might be different from ours, so do go on and read the full paper as there seem to be many different roads that evidence can take to inform decision-making.