The politics of evidence in policy making

Anne Lan Kagahastian-Candelaria, Ph.D. introduces her research Evidence for What? Exploring the definition & political value of evidence-informed policy making according to Philippine Mayors. This study tries to bridge the understanding and importance of EIPM between those who produce research and those who consume it for policy purposes; and to evaluate the political value of EIPM in local policy making within the context of local government in Philippines. This study was funded through an INASP small grant in 2012.

I was first introduced to the concept of evidence-informed policy making (EIPM) in 2012 during an INASP-led capacity building workshop that targeted policy advocates and practitioners in Asia. I recalled how the different participants would debate about what constitutes a ‘policy’ and, more importantly, what is meant by ‘evidence’.

In informal conversations I have with politicians in the Philippines, they use word ‘policy’ to refer to different things. And because they see themselves in the context of power, they also believe that they should not be always at the mercy of ‘evidence’. Having worked with them for close to fifteen years now, I find this observation not as a threat but an opportunity to introduce to them the idea of evidence-informed policymaking, which is more pragmatic and flexible to the needs and context of policymakers.

This study seeks to respond to this observation by primarily attempting to explore how local policymakers in the Philippines perceive the use of ‘evidence’ in informing policy choices. A second more pragmatic objective is to evaluate the value of the use of ‘evidence’, particularly in winning an election.

Our team comprised of the academe (Ateneo de Manila University’s Department of Political Science) and the practitioners (the Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines and the League of Municipalities). The methodological design, instruments, data collection and data interpretation were done collaboratively. A total of 120 municipal (or town) mayors were randomly surveyed with regards to their perceived use of evidence in health, education and social welfare policies across the country. Then we tracked our respondents whether they won the elections or not. The results were presented to selected Mayors for verification in two round table discussions.

The results were unexpected.

My team and I had this nagging hypothesis that the use of ‘evidence’ in informing policy is not really being practiced as often as it should be. However, the survey revealed that mayors say they “always” use ‘evidence’! We verified this result, among many other findings, during two round table discussions with selected mayors. They told us that for them, they receive tons of information on a daily basis and have no time to differentiate whether this information is objective and reliable or not. Hence, everything in front of them is considered ‘evidence’ and so they rely on their personal (as opposed to policy network) network, experience and local knowledge for decisions.

Therefore, one important lesson that I learned from this study is this: that perhaps as EIPM advocates, it is not about how many research we can produce. Rather, it is about how we can help policymakers spot EIPM-worthy research amidst all this information noise. (And perhaps, it will not hurt if we can be part of their personal network too!)

As for the political value of EIPM, we found out that those who won were second term mayors (Mayors can run for three consecutive terms. Each term is three years.) who perceived themselves to have used EIPM in education-related policies.

The second lesson therefore is this: that it was not EIPM per se that made them win but their priority of education did; and of course, political capital, being on their second term of office. The strategy therefore is to find a mayor with a “good enough” political capital and an issue that, when prioritized, may in fact deliver the votes and then introduce how EIPM can make their policies more effective.

In this part of the world, policymaking will always be undertaken in the most practical, and often less ideological, approach. Hence, while these lessons may be not sit well among policy think tanks, this has a potential to provide a decent strategy to achieve that very first “win”.

Countries in Asia, including the Philippines, share something in common politically – that is, most countries in the region have had their share of colonial history. They also share the same predicament that challenges the idea of “rationality” in policymaking – that post-independence Asia saw the proliferation of a very Weberian-structured government (usually remnants of the colonial government) ran by people who led the revolution but perhaps not trained enough in the science of rational governance and policymaking. Hence, on the onset, the structure looks ‘modern’ but the process and way of doing things remain largely ‘pre-colonial’ where the value of personal ties, kinship and culture shape what decisions are acceptable and not.

In the end, policymaking is politics. And politics will always be the art of compromise.

Anne Lan Kagahastian-Candelaria
Anne Lan Kagahastian-Candelaria, Ph.D. is the winner of a 2012 INASP small grant which she used to conduct the study outlined in "Evidence for What? Exploring the definition & political value of evidence-informed policy making according to Philippine Mayors".

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