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The challenge of global collective action during a period of polarization

Ronald U. Mendoza 13 April 2023

IDinsight Southeast Asia Regional Director Ronald Mendoza at the 22nd Session of the United Nations Committee of the Experts on Public Administration (CEPA).

I recently had the opportunity to participate in the 22nd Session of the United Nations Committee of the Experts on Public Administration (CEPA) at the UN Headquarters in New York City. 

The session centered on the theme “Urgently transforming institutions for a greener, more inclusive, and more resilient world in times of multiple crises.”  The discussions highlighted the pressing need for the international community to make significant progress towards addressing sustainability goals. This involves investing in adaptation and mitigation objectives linked to climate change, while also responding to many interlinked issues such as conflict, food and fuel inflation, lingering education, health, and equity concerns, technology disruptions, as well as other broad economic development challenges. 

As a member of CEPA from Southeast Asia, I sought to highlight challenges related to the political economy of data and evidence generation and use.  In particular, I emphasized the challenges not just of pandemic recovery, but also the persistent governance issues related to evidence-informed policymaking and the risks posed by populism. In many countries, often inter-related challenges of anti-science and anti-expertise sentiments have gained momentum, upending once strong links across the research and scientific community with policymakers and citizens. Advocates of evidence-informed policymaking as a form of good governance must make a stronger case with fellow citizens on how this can produce more sustained and high social and economic development impacts. 

During the exchange on international good practices, various practical public administration innovations implemented by UN member countries were discussed, highlighting the complex challenges faced by countries. One interesting takeaway from the discussions was the increasing use of data to inform policy decisions that support the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Governments at both the central and local levels are implementing initiatives to collect and analyze data to better understand the impact of their policies on achieving the SDGs.

Innovations include big data analytics in national statistics agencies like that in Rwanda, while cities like Buenos Aires are using novel SDG indicators to measure progress towards green jobs. Additionally, countries like Saudi Arabia and Malaysia are developing open-access data platforms for private sector participation and monitoring of the SDGs.

An evidence ecosystem lens

Our discussions and research among members of CEPA made clear that there are various stakeholders and underlying institutions — as well as a necessary prevailing culture — supporting data and evidence-informed policymaking processes. Multilateral development partners and philanthropic donors help resource many studies and in some cases even set up the foundations for program and policy reforms for possible scaling up, working with government and civil society partners. Academic institutions, think tanks, and policy research groups like IDinsight play a crucial role in co-producing research and supplying expertise for the evidence ecosystem. These groups often work in close partnership with technical experts in government or international development agencies to ensure that research findings are relevant and applicable to real-world policy decisions.

Traditional and digital media help to translate and amplify the reach of these studies so that citizens are better informed. In this context, citizen engagement is critical, as citizens are expected to express their preferences through participatory actions that demonstrate their agency in the policymaking process. Political leadership must also be engaged in this process, to arrive at scientifically credible and politically acceptable arrangements that are cost-effective and further support overall collective action both within and across countries.

Recommendations to strengthen evidence-informed policymaking

An evidence ecosystem lens acknowledges how all of these parts are mutually supporting elements and it is critical to understand how weakness in one or some parts may eventually weaken the whole system. Recent studies emphasize some useful recommendations for strengthening the evidence ecosystem.

  1. Policy research and evaluations could begin by engaging the policy question and decision space to make use of this evidence base. Evaluations are then part of a range of complementary inquiries (including cost-effectiveness and value-for-money analyses) that better equip decision-makers in government, the private sector, and civil society among others, to better tailor the research for practical decision-making for the greatest social impact. 
  2. Digital transformation and the use of new technologies to capture data (e.g. big data, administrative data, low-cost remote surveys) could also help enhance the cost-effectiveness of evaluation research.
  3. To further the challenge of boosting the evidence ecosystem, locally grounded evidence-to-policy partnerships can also help to enhance the practical impact of evaluations. These partnerships can also help shape the political economy of reforms in favor of widely understood data and evidence priors, helping to bridge divides. Participation is an anchor of trust-building deliberations – but data and evidence are part of the common language for that discussion.
  4. Evidence use and evidence-informed policymaking can also be strengthened by institutionalizing the generation of evaluations, including by creating new incentives for generating and using these types of research, such as by treating them as economic safeguards on program and policy effectiveness and resource use. 

The above evidence ecosystem lens can also help emphasize how citizens’ general susceptibility to dis-/mis-information should be cause for concern for all who support evidence-based policymaking as a governance approach. Fake news could eventually upend the data and evidence-informed policymaking process. Without a basic appreciation for facts, and when the appreciation of the risks of fake news is weak, then it is straightforward to imagine how discussions of policy trade-offs can become more confusing, and opportunistic political tactics to obfuscate and confuse citizens can become much more debilitating. Building trust in the data and research generation process will be key.

To conclude, communicating data and evidence to non-technical audiences for their broader appreciation could also help break traditional small non-inclusive circles of discussion and debate. Ultimately, expertise and scientific rigor are not enough—this must be channeled effectively to drive more cost-effective policy decisions and strike fairer policy trade-offs and decisions. Data and evidence, when wielded effectively, could produce high-impact outcomes in policymaking that ultimately support the broader public good.

This article draws from: Mendoza, R.U. 2023. “Political Economy of Data- and Evidence-Based Policymaking”. IDinsight and Ateneo Policy Center, Ateneo de Manila University. 

The CEPA is a UN technical advisory body that was initiated over two decades ago, The CEPA, comprised of experts appointed by the UN Secretary-General, studies and makes recommendations to improve governance and public administration structures and processes for development. It assists the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) by reviewing trends, issues, and priorities in public administration, in relation to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and in support of the SDGs. Members include leading academics, former politicians, and technocrats from economic planning, development, and finance ministries. Ronald Mendoza is a member of CEPA, and his appointment extends from 2021-2025.