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In Data Veritas: How to Incorporate Reliable Data in Policymaking

Equipping policymakers and political party candidates with skills to understand the value of data, and interpret, analyze and use rigorous data in policymaking has potential to improve democracy and good governance outcomes. It can enhance effectiveness of policies, generate greater buy-in by constituents and other stakeholders, and improve policymakers’ responsiveness and accountability to their constituents.

But, what does it take for policymakers and political party candidates to generate evidence-based policies and platforms? Especially when their ability to collect reliable data is often limited due to scarce resources, or where information space is controlled or flooded with erroneous or biased data?

This was the focus of our session titled “Utilizing Data Throughout the Policymaking Cycle” that was held at the IRI’s Southern Africa Regional Political Party Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa. The conference   brought together members of political parties and civil society representatives from the region. In our session, we discussed how to utilize data for evidence-based policymaking, from designing and advocating for policy solutions to conducting monitoring and evaluation of the results of policy implementation. The training session emphasized the utility of good data and that “by harnessing new technology and investing in data collection and analysis, decision-makers can position themselves to spot problems faster, identify and test a range of policy options, learn from collective experience, target limited resources, and quickly refine and tailor policy interventions.”

Like in many of similar contexts where parties and government officials have limited resources and capacity to conduct research, the issue of cost and feasibility was at the forefront of the discussion. This concern is valid, and we emphasized lower-cost solutions for incorporating evidence in the participants’ work. One such opportunity is fostering partnerships with local universities, civil society organizations (CSOs), think tanks and advocacy groups that are collecting relevant local and national-level data. Fostering meaningful engagement with these stakeholders can also help political parties and government officials to generate buy-in and better understand the needs of constituents in real time.

Of course, not all data are created equal. In the session, we spoke about ways the participants can become smarter consumers of data, by choosing trusted, fact-based and relevant sources, and by learning how to correctly interpret data. As the access and amounts of information continue to increase, filtering through and recognizing reliable information is key. Thus, becoming educated data consumers is becoming more and more relevant. However, even when given access to reliable data, studies show that policymakers’ ability to interpret data is often limited, which can lead to poor decision-making. In the session, we provided the participants with an overview of data interpretation principles. We also discussed several examples of how flawed interpretation of data can lead to bias and misuse, and ultimately ill-informed decisions.

 

Throughout the session we emphasized the utility of using data to not only plan, but also to enhance advocacy efforts, to communicate with constituents and to monitor, evaluate and learn from implementing policies. Accurate, reliable data can improve effectiveness of policies, help decision-makers target the actual problem at hand, and be more responsive, since it enables them to focus on causes of the problems. Utilizing data can also reduce wasteful spending by informing budget choices, and by eliminating ineffective policy options.

The session was successful, and the participants were very enthusiastic about incorporating data in their future work, as well as connecting to and leveraging expertise of local think-tanks and CSOs. Several participants discussed the ways they plan to use data to tackle problems like corruption, and to demonstrate the urgency of this issue to other stakeholders using evidence. It was exciting to see a renewed interest and enthusiasm towards evidence-based policy making, especially from participants who were already aware of some of the principles introduced. In the words of a political party representative from Namibia: “I realized… that evidence-based policy making is very important to achieve any objective or any goal for successful outcome”.

The success of the session highlighted the importance of the topic and the potential for incorporating the training into IRI’s training ‘toolbox’. By arming policymakers with knowledge on how to interpret and use data, their efforts can be more credible, grounded, reliable and convincing. In data, veritas!