Factfulness in Policy Making

Public policy making draws its legitimacy from the people, but also from being based on correct factual assumptions. This requires knowledgeable policy makers. Fact finding and science affect how successful policies are in reaching their goals, and in avoiding negative side effects. The information-gathering advantages of the executive branch also affect the constitutional power balance — the more insightful its knowledge-based decision making is, the more reason for other branches to defer to it. But how to choose what knowledge to look for, and what expertise to emphasize more? And how relevant is political tradition to these choices?

The share of the global population living in extreme poverty has dropped 34 percentage points since 1981. But rising inequality and a reduction in job growth may stymie future reductions in poverty: today, the majority of the world’s poor live in highly unequal middle-income countries. I argue that ending extreme poverty requires ensuring that the poor have access to “invisible infrastructure”, which I define as the set of institutional structures that provide economic opportunity to all — and that an effective domestic state remains central to the creation of these structures. This talk explores how building such an effective state will require both improving implementation of components of the invisible infrastructure and giving the poor the democratic influence to demand the reforms they need, by solving agency problems between citizens, politicians, and bureaucrats.

For years, Dani Rodrik, Asim Khwaja, and I have co-taught the flagship MPA/ID development course at HKS. We often see students, especially those with experience in government and policymaking, arrive with a solution in hand — digital identification, or universal basic income, or whatever — and our work is to get them to back up and start thinking hard in terms of problem identification. If you can get them to do that — to be question-orientated rather than answer-orientated — then it’s an easy step to get them to think about analytical frameworks and the evidence needed.

But I should point out that people who come through HKS are a pretty select population, and to affect policy at scale, you need to go to where it’s being made. A big part of EPoD’s mission over the last four years has been to build an appreciation for analytical frameworks and a capacity for their use among policymakers in country. Here we see the same problem emerge: solutions dominate the conversation before problems have even been identified. This is often because a particular solution is being pushed by political bosses or superiors in the bureaucracy. But we are committed to engaging in shifting this discourse with in-country partners. EPoD has developed a blended online/classroom training program that is now being ingrained into India and Pakistan’s civil service training academies. This, in combination with pilot projects that show the value of evidence-based policymaking, and events where policy problems are discussed with colleagues and researchers, is beginning to shift the culture.

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