Improving Evidence Use in Government Decision-Making

Some thoughts from a case study in fragile/conflict-affected environments.

I recently attended the second annual roundtable meeting of the Africa Cabinet Government Network (ACGN) in Accra. The Network brings together Cabinet Secretaries and secretariat staff across twelve African governments to share knowledge, experiences and lessons in using evidence in Cabinet decision-making, and to sow the seeds for continued dialogue beyond the annual meetings.

The work of the ACGN forms part of the three-year Africa Cabinet Decision-making (ACD) programme, delivered by Adam Smith International and funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) under its Building Capacity to Use Research Evidence (BCURE) programme. The BCURE programme is funding five very different capacity building approaches to increasing the demand for and use of evidence in government decision-making, including the ACD programme with its focus on engaging with Cabinet secretariats in three fragile/conflict-affected contexts: Sierra Leone, Liberia and South Sudan. In tackling some of the major impediments to accessing, appraising and applying research and other evidence – including, reinforcing Cabinet procedures to enable more effective access, building capacities within the secretariat and line ministries to strengthen evidence literacy, and boosting motivation and the demand for evidence use amongst Ministers – the ACD programme aims to increase the use of evidence in Cabinet decision-making and strengthen the role of the Cabinet secretariat in supporting change.

I am part of an Itad team that is evaluating the BCURE programme to assess how each individual project is contributing to the promotion of evidence use. We are also researching more broadly how and why different approaches to capacity building for evidence-informed policy making work. Although we are only just beginning the first round of data collection and analysis, we have started to develop a number of theories around what factors support or constrain a culture of working in an evidence-informed way. This has been informed, in particular, by a multi-disciplinary review of the existing evidence base led by my colleague Mel Punton.

I won’t steal Mel’s thunder – the evidence review will be published soon and makes for a really interesting read! – but here are five thoughts emerging from my discussions in Accra and based on Mel’s work, which have helped to shape my understanding of the inner workings of the ACD programme.

  1. Working in institutionally fragile contexts such as Liberia, South Sudan and Sierra Leone requires a slow and incremental approach to changing how evidence is understood and used. The example of Liberia, where weak government capacity and very low utilisation of evidence have been compounded by the recent Ebola crisis, demonstrates the importance of maintaining realistic expectations about the pace of change in perceptions and use of evidence in policy development. It is important to recognise that an important first step in such contexts is to increase the use of evidence in its broadest sense, i.e. not just rigorous scientific evidence but also more anecdotal evidence, personal testimony and practical wisdom. Once greater demand for evidence has been created, the next challenge will be to improve the quality of that evidence and increase levels of understanding around what constitutes relevant and appropriate evidence in a particular policy context.
  2. The ACD programme’s approach to organisational-level change supports the theory that tools and processes can both facilitate and reinforce staff to adopt evidence-informed behaviours. Through a combination of both top-down decree for strict adherence to new formats, and a training and mentoring approach that facilitates staff to discover for themselves how using evidence can make a difference to their own work (and improve the likelihood of their policy proposal getting through Cabinet), the programme aims to gradually build a collective interest in and understanding of working in a more evidence-informed way.
  3. Another important factor in building an organisational culture of evidence within a resource-constrained environment is transformational leadership. I encountered several good examples in Accra of powerful and proactive leaders, whose commitment to evidence-informed policy making, combined with close personal ties to the President and an ability to build effective relationships, appears to be an important driver of change in staff behaviours and attitudes towards the use of evidence in policy formulation.
  4. The programme’s approach to embedding training within the broader process of procedural-level change supports the theory that social learning is an important factor in helping to establish an organisational culture that values evidence. The primary focus of the ACD programme so far has been to gradually strengthen the systems and processes that support evidence-informed policy development across the three countries. However, to help embed a culture of evidence within government, it is also carrying out different approaches to training and mentoring staff in accessing, appraising and applying evidence. One particularly successful example was a recent workshop bringing together policy analysts from across the continent, which was designed around the principle of participatory and peer-to-peer learning, and fostering a collective approach to valuing the role of evidence in policy proposals. The fact that the workshop has since been cited repeatedly by participants in the context of championing the work of the programme is testament to the power of social learning as a means of building both individual and collective support for change.  
  5. The role of networks and peer-to-peer learning can be seen as a critical factor in driving programme sustainability. Whilst a sustainable training approach embedded within the national civil service training programme, combined with well-established operational procedures, are clearly essential components to building sustainability, the strength and uniqueness of the ACD programme approach, and the core of its sustainability, arguably lie in its development of networks of peer support and exchange, such as the ACGN. In the context of fragility, in particular, where the strength of institutions often does not extend far beyond its individuals, the fundamental role of networks in building a critical mass of individuals supportive of broader organisational change becomes even sharper.

Do any of these thoughts chime with your own research or experience? If so, please do get in touch as I’d love to hear from you!

David Fleming, Itad, May 2015


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  1. Bernadette Wright, PhD

    Re point #1: Using a broad range of evidence, including scientific studies using varied methods and knowledge from experience, provides the best insight for making policy decisions. When we use an overly narrow view of what counts as evidence, we miss out on a lot of important information. The key is to use all the evidence, let the policy-relevant questions that need answering drive the choice of research methods, and be aware of the strengths and the weaknesses of each evidence source.


  2. John T. Njovu

    On point#3: There is a winner take all mentality in some African governments. While the democratic institutions of governance may be in place, most citizens have put trust not in institutions and objective evidence but in individual leaders. Decisions in most institutions are not usually made based on objective evidence but based on pleasing leaders or seemingly on what a leader may be pleased with. Technocrats bow to political leaders who do not most of the time thoroughly read through reports or have the time to assimilate what is in reports or shy away from showing ignorance especially on complex technical or financial matters. After Zambia reverted to a multi-party democratic system in 1991, USAID helped the government to introduce an objective public policy making system at Cabinet. However, matters of public policy are still the domain of individual leaders. The civil service has been politicised with appointment of ruling party’s cadres at all levels. There are weak checks and balances in Zambia as the executive overshadows the legislature and judiciary. Even the press and civil society are inclined to support political parties preferred by their boards (


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