Policies are everywhere, and although often unseen and unknown, form the framework for how citizens work, play, and live their lives. At the heart of every policy is information, forming the basis of knowledge and evidence-based decision-making. Acquiring the information to make the right policy decision is by no means a simple task. In our 21st century context, information flows from multiple pathways, with numerous sources, stakeholders, and other factors, all of which influence how research-based information is transmitted, translated, and communicated to policy-makers (Nutley, Walter, & Davies, 2007). Three main factors should be considered when examining how information informs policies: the structure of information pathways, reconciling the supply of information (from researchers) with the demand for information (from policy-makers), and the context through which information flows.
Structure of Information Pathways
The actual structure of information pathways, or information chains, according to Duff, can be defined as “the institutional and documentational structure of human communication” (1997). More specifically, the communication structure is how ideas are consolidated into information, and then formed into knowledge that can actually be usable by policy-makers (Duff, 1997). The notion of information chains emerged immediately after World War II (Duff, 1997). Key aspects of early models were their hierarchal nature, with information flowing downward from researchers in the form of publications and reports, as well as the importance of libraries as central repositories and tools for distribution (Duff, 1997; Dicks, Walsh, & Sutherland, 2014). However, as Duff (1997) points out, the shortcomings of these early theoretical models are their linearity and compartmentalized nature that do not accurately reflect the complexities of distributing the information to policy-makers. It was not until the 1980s that the idea of dynamic information pathways emerged. These new models recognized the rise of the “information society,” wherein technology, such as the Internet, allowed for policy-makers as well as citizens to engage with researchers in a direct, ongoing fashion, through a multitude of different networks (Duff, 1997, p. 184; McNie, 2007; Parag, Hamilton, White, & Hogan, 2013). Indeed, in today’s world, the structure of information pathways is inherently dynamic, and in a state of “interactivity, pluralism, flux, freedom, and futurity” (Duff, 1997, p. 185). This type of structure has both negative and positive attributes.
Parag, Hamilton, White and Hogan’s work exemplifies the positives of networked information pathways in the context of Low Carbon Community Groups (LCCGs). They found 432 connections between 60 groups with regard to the flow of information between LCCGs as well as outside organizations (Parag et al., 2013). These LCCGs shared with each other. This shared information tended to be seen as legitimate, and thus LCCGs found they did not have to rely solely on external institutions. It was also found that the level of funding given to a group was positively correlated with how much information they shared with others (Parag et al., 2013). However, the dynamism of information pathways can also lead policy-makers to bypass important evidence-based information “for a quick fix” (Dicks et al., 2014, p. 611). There are several instances in which this circumventing can occur. The “selective understanding bypass,” in which research studies used do not represent a full scientific understanding, the “limited guidance bypass” where advice or guidance is based on only some research studies, and the “opinion-based bypass,” wherein documents, advice, or decisions are based on experience or expert opinion, rather than scientific information (Dicks et al., 2014, p. 611).
Reconciling Supply of Scientific information With User Demands
Nutley, Walter, and Davies (2007) outline how, in a policy context, research should be “timely and relevant to policy makers’ and practitioners’ requirements” and should be presented “concise, jargon-free and visually appealing” (p. 82). Indeed, more than ever, policy-makers desire “more useful” information produced by scientists (McNie, 2007, p. 17). Useful information must be salient (context sensitive), credible (accurate and high quality), and legitimate (free from bias) (McNie, 2007). One option for obtaining this type of information involves strengthening the connections between supply (researchers) and demand (policy-makers) of information, thus reconciling the two (McNie, 2007; Sarewitz & Pielke, 2007). Aligning scientific and policy priorities can be a challenge. For example, 90% of diseases receive only 10% of research (Sarewitz & Pielke, 2007). Decisions made about the size of a research portfolio are often influenced by political pressure. Many groups may have stakes in the outcome of research, but those with greater resources and bigger voices, are able to highly influence the demand for science (Sarewitz & Pielke, 2007). Options to overcome this problem include building trust and respect between researchers and policy-makers, boundary-management (which defines how information flows back and forth, and protects against politicized science), and creating frameworks that could allow analysis and improvement of the science-policy interface (McNie, 2007). Researchers must also understand the decision-making process, and likewise, policy-makers must understand how research is carried out, and the language that comes with both spheres (McNie, 2007). Translating scientific speak into something a policy-maker can understand and use is crucial (McNie, 2007).
Context is Everything
Context is a critical aspect that affects both the structure of information pathways, and how information itself flows from researchers to the public, to policy-makers, and back again. Contextual factors include which organizations are involved (e.g., public, private, and government), the level of interest and engagement from civil society, technology (e.g., social media), institutional biases, and culture (McNie, 2007; Sarewitz & Pielke, 2007). Context helps to determine which information is useful when it comes to decision-making. For example, in regard to climate science policy, a highly inflexible supply-dominated context led the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to issue reports assessing how knowledge surrounding climate change was expanding. Conversely, in the context of pursuing a thorough understanding of climate behaviour, the National Research Council focused on analyzing research needs and priorities (Parag et al., 2013).
Going forward, policy-makers must be aware not only of information pathways, but of the factors that affect them. Only then will they be able to access the knowledge needed in order ensure that policy decisions are smart, adaptive, and reflect the needs of citizens today.
Dicks, L. V., Walsh, J. C., & Sutherland, W. J. (2014). Organizing evidence for environmental management decisions: A “45” hierarchy. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 29(11), 607-613.
Duff, A. S. (1997). Some post-war models on the information chain. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 29, 179-187.
McNie, E. (2007). Reconciling the supply of scientific information with user demands: An analysis of the problem and review of the literature. Environmental Science & Policy, 10, 17-38.
Nutley, S. M., Walter, I., & Davies, H. T. O. (2007). Using evidence: How research can inform public services. Bristol: The Policy Press.
Parag, Y., Hamilton, J., & Hogan, B. (2013). Network approach for local and community governance of energy: The case of Oxfordshire. Energy Policy, 62, 1064-1077.
Sarawitz, D., & Pielke Jr., R. A. (2007). The neglected heart of the science policy: Reconciling supply of and demand for science. Environmental Science & Policy, 10(1), 5-16.
Authors: Heather Deagle, Kaitlyn Doucette, and James Rothwell
This blog post is part of a series of posts authored by students in the graduate course “The Role of Information in Public Policy and Decision Making,” offered at Dalhousie University.