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Improving the culture of evidence-informed decision-making in the Brazilian public sector – INASP Blog

Improving the culture of evidence-informed decision-making in the Brazilian public sector

How can the culture of evidence-informed decision-making be improved in the Brazilian public sector?

A recent partnership between INASP, the Veredas Institute and Purpose & Ideas aimed at answering this question. For that purpose, we combined the insights from a literature review and six interviews with Brazilian experts. The experts were public servants directly involved in the area of Evidence-Informed Public Policy, and champions of the use of evidence in their context. The interviews were based on exploring the factors for evidence use as identified in the Context Matters Framework, with a special focus on the dimension of organisational culture.

Policy-making is always a process full of uncertainty and risks. Managers and politicians do not have complete information on the issues they face. This is why using the best available evidence is critical in government. Evidence sheds light on a problem. It helps to better understand and frame what is happening and to identify and implement potentially effective solutions. 

Nonetheless, it is common for public institutions to struggle to use evidence in their routines. Among the factors that lead to this, organisational culture has a prominent role. Organizational culture refers to the ideas, values and behaviours reinforced by a community, leading to common practices. The culture of an organisation will inevitably affect what type of evidence is used and in which ways. For instance, one institution might value research in general, and develop processes to use it, while another organisation might largely dismiss research as irrelevant, emphasising experiential knowledge. 

According to the experts interviewed, the culture of evidence use in Brazil is still incipient. Some new initiatives may be indicating a path forward, and the public sector is increasingly interested in using evidence, but the disregard of evidence in favour of other interests remains the predominant trend. As one interviewee said:

“From 2016 onwards, there is a dissemination of the paradigm. People have been talking more about evidence-based policy. However, in terms of organisational change, it is still very limited.”

Interviewees reported that colleagues and employees are engaged and intrinsically motivated to use evidence. But, they described several limitations to efforts to enhance the use of evidence in their institutions, such as conflicting interests, lack of protocols, organisational inertia, lack of incentives and untrained staff. Overall, public sector culture does not seem to value evidence as a critical resource, and there are many gaps for the uptake of evidence in terms of institutional capacity. One example shared by an expert illustrates how other institutional agendas can affect the use of evidence:

“The political factor is very important. There is a fear of producing evidence, and seeing what it can generate. Recently, an evaluation was cancelled due to the fear of information falling in the press and the consequences of it. I am sad to see how the need for transparency in public management ends up having a perverse effect. People think: ‘as we are going to have to disclose this information, so it is better to not do the evaluation, instead of doing it and running the risk of a negative result’.”

Despite these limitations, new opportunities are arising in Brazil. In an attempt to support this movement, we present below a few recommendations derived from the combined insights from the literature and the experts’ perspectives.

Adaptive approaches are vital

First of all, it is essential to recognize that organizational change is a complex task. Therefore, any intervention must be contextually grounded. Instead of bluntly importing a pre-formatted best-practice, a plan to change should adopt strategies of adaptive management, such as Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation. Adaptive management starts from a deep, contextual and collective understanding of the problem, and promotes gradual change by making use of available resources and opportunities. As strategies are deployed, data is collected to monitor progress and promote collective learning from mistakes, leading to adaptations and new ideas. Given that promoting organisational change is a complex task, it is natural that after overcoming one challenge, another barrier will surface. For that reason, change efforts must be supported by a consistent process of monitoring, learning and adaptation, always focused on the critical contextual elements.

Seven paths for culture change

Additionally, if contextual conditions allow, seven paths for culture change can be considered. These should focus on simultaneously developing capability, motivation and opportunity to use evidence in decision-making processes.

1)    Training for public servants

Providing training in research methods, knowledge translation, application of knowledge into policy, and on the latest academic discussion in the relevant policy area.

2)    Designing protocols for the use of evidence

Establishing organizational standards for the application of evidence within the policy-making process.

3) Fostering partnerships with civil society and academic organizations

Fostering partnerships with civil society and academic organizations increases social participation in the policy-making process. This is an essential source of evidence to make policies more representative and effective.

4)    Promoting exchanges between public servants and researchers

Promoting structured interaction, allowing staff members to learn from researchers, and researchers to better understand policy needs.

5)    Promoting a learning culture

Creating relevant institutional data and fostering an environment that is supportive of change and innovation.

6)    Investing in institutional champions of evidence-informed policy

Supporting staff members that can lead relevant initiatives, while inspiring and influencing colleagues.

7)    Creating units specialized in “evidence-to-policy”

Establishing units responsible for performing an evidence needs assessment of the organization and implementing a change plan.

Focus on end-users

As mentioned above, the implementation of any of these strategies must be done as an incremental process permeated by learning and adaptation. In the core of evidence-informed policy making is the idea of knowledge translation: making knowledge accessible and applicable by different social actors. For that, it is essential to focus on the final consumers of evidence. If evidence is not being consumed, this indicates that the interventions have not yet succeeded. One interviewee highlighted this, when mentioning how to present evidence to policymakers:

“The closer you get to the manager and understand what their aims are, the more you can convince them that these studies will help, and so you maximise the impact of scientific evidence. […] The manager says: “this 150-page study? I’m not going to read this”. Basically, what are they saying to me? That I’m not presenting the evidence properly. It has to be on one page. In other words, what are they telling me? They are telling me to innovate in the area of knowledge translation”.


On the 11th of May 2021, these findings were presented for the first time in an event hosted by the Brazilian Ministry of Health. The event was organised by the COEVI unit, which has as one of its attributions the promotion of the culture of evidence-informed policymaking in the Brazilian public health system.


For more information, you can find the full report with the analysis and recommendations here and a case study with a detailed report of the interviews here (in English) or here (in Portuguese).

Davi Romão is Substitute Executive Director of the Veredas Institute. This study was developed at INASP as part of a professional placement for the Master of Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford.

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