Decision and policy-making are multifaceted processes. Carol H. Weiss’s 1977 statement “policymaking process is a political process, with the basic aim of reconciling interests in order to negotiate consensus, not of implementing logic and truth” remains valid today (Weiss, 1977, p. 533). Awareness that policy making is a multifaceted process and one in which research is only one input (Prewitt, Schwandt, & Straf 2012) are important for understanding this common activity of today’s society. However, social science research and local knowledge can factor into decision and policy-making by what we refer to as the “Ps” about the influence of information. This post examines these “Ps” and identifies various limitations in the policy and decision-making processes.
Process. The new and expanding role of governance facilitates the integration of various types of knowledge (Prewitt et al., 2012; Reimer & Brett, 2013). Local knowledge and other experience can factor into policy and decision-making through established processes such as advisory committees and networks (Reimer & Brett, 2013) and through collaborative planning and joint-fact-finding partnerships (Prewitt et al., 2012; Taylor & Loë, 2012). Ultimately, policy and decision-making is a political process where social science research is one source of input (Prewitt et al., 2012), where reconciling interests to achieve consensus often takes precedent over truth and logic (Weiss, 1977), and where contextual matters remain important (Prewitt et al., 2012).
Properties. The use of social science information in policy and decision-making depends upon the information itself. Information is more likely to be used in, or influence, policy and decision-making when it is conceptual knowledge, consistent with beliefs and in line with agency assumptions and philosophies, outcome based, and innovative and challenging (Weiss, 1977).
Perspective. Policy and decision-making can be approached from the perspective of learning. Knowledge building can be viewed as a process that is contingent and dynamic as it is formed, validated, and adapted to changing circumstances (Taylor & Loë, 2012). New and innovative perspectives arising from research are important, albeit gradual, contributions to policy development (Weiss, 1977).
Positions. People come from various cultural and education backgrounds. Epistemological positions of various participants need to be recognized to address barriers to integration of local knowledge (Taylor & Loë, 2012). Name, occupation, and representation of actors could be supplemented with details of culture, values, and knowledge systems in the decision-making process.
Publishing. Information used in policy and decision-making may be received from various methods such as: translation, (re-packaging of technical findings in terms more readily consumable by policy makers), brokering (two-way conversation aided or mediated by a third party such as think-tanks, evaluation firms, and policy-oriented organizations), or interactive model (encourages formal linkages and frequent exchanges among researchers, policy makers, and service providers to occur at all steps between production and use of knowledge) (Prewitt et al., 2012). Other sources of information may arise from local knowledge (Taylor & Loë, 2012), personal stories, experience, and the internet (Reimer & Brett, 2013).
Patience: The gradual, cumulative effect of new concepts and emergent data, known as the enlightenment function of social science research, takes time (Weiss, 1977). Mismatch in demands of users and producers of information results in lack of inclusion of research outcomes in policy development; politicians are defined by election cycles, they demand fast conclusions, and they respond to sudden shifts in public attention (Prewitt et al., 2012).
Power Relations: Power relations exist as dimensions of knowledge power and people power. Those who hold more knowledge have more power, as is evident in situations that rely heavily on technical knowledge and in the hierarchy of knowledge where natural sciences are often more empowered than social sciences, and social sciences are more empowered than local knowledge (Taylor & Loë, 2012). Power also exists in personal experience and public opinion (Reimer & Brett, 2013); politicians may pander to voters rather than turning to scientific evidence for justification of decisions (Prewett et al., 2012).
Possibilities. Evolution of governance models and increased interest in the social sciences and local knowledge may play a greater role in current and future policy and decision-making. As the potential for inclusion of information becomes strengthened through collaborative processes for knowledge generation and use, challenges and barriers to information influence can be overcome with the interaction model of knowledge utilization.
Many of the authors considered in this post identified limitations existing in the decision and policy-making processes, including an overgeneralization of the inability of scientific research, especially social science studies, to influence policy decisions (Gutting, 2012). Political ideologies, as well, limit the goals and methods used to achieve an ideal arrangement. The timeliness of and how well research fits into current policy discussions are also major limitations.
As demonstrated throughout this post, decision and policy-making is a multifaceted process in which scientific research is only one source of information that is important to consider. Social science research, local knowledge, and political justification are also imperative to the process and can influence policy and decision-making. Exploring the key elements, the “Ps” of policy-making, enhanced our understanding of how information can influence policy and decision-making. Key elements affecting social science and local information use in decision-making take into consideration the need for a process by which to convey the information, the properties and publishing of information, perspective and positions of various stakeholders, and power relations within knowledge utilization by people. It has been nearly 40 years since Weiss’s article was published and we have seen expansion in investment in social science research and the evolution of governance models and practices. Given a new order of governance in our country, we are optimistic about the future of integration of social science research into policy-making.
Gutting, G. (2012, May 17). How reliable are the social sciences? The New York Times. Retrieved from http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/17/how-reliable-are-the-social-sciences/?ref=opinion%20
Prewitt, K., Schwandt, T. A., & Straf, M. L., (Eds.) (2012). Using science as evidence in public policy. Chapters 1, 2, & 3. “Introduction,” “Why this report now,” and “The use of research knowledge: Current scholarship” (pp. 7-52). Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Reimer, B., & Brett, M. (2013). Scientific knowledge and rural policy: A long-distant relationship. Scoiologia Ruralis, 53, 272-290.
Taylor, B., & de Loe, R. C. (2012) Conceptualizations of local knowledge in collaborative environmental governance. Geoforum, 43, 1207-1217.
Weiss, C. (1977). Research for policy’s sake: The enlightenment function of social research. Policy Analysis, 3(4), 531-546.
Authors: Bukola Akinbogun, Shelley Denny, and Allie MacLean
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.