Evidence-Based Policymaking: A Path to Data Culture
May 17, 2023
The Data for Development team was sitting in a chiya-pasal, a tea shop, in a municipality in the western part of Nepal, having a casual talk with local leaders about financial decisions by the local government for development in the area. Everyone supported the extension of roads, some of which were in good shape and others not, but there was a feeling that larger challenges were present in several wards of the municipality—children, for example, who had to travel for hours to school, health clinics that lacked adequate facilities for pregnant women, lack of attention to the needs of women and youth, and many other issues.
This infatuation with road infrastructure while neglecting other challenges is a common symptom of poor planning among local governments in the country. Another is the habit of allocating the same budget to each of their wards despite demographic differences and unequal needs. These misapplications of resources show the need for improvement in local planning and policymaking.
Part of the problem is that local governments in Nepal still struggle to integrate evidence-based practices into their planning and policymaking. Local planning in Nepal is meant to follow a bottom-up approach starting at the settlement level, and community, government, and civil society stakeholders are expected to participate. One key ingredient that is missing, however, is the application of reliable data throughout the process, from the identification of problems to the deliberation of solutions. This article discusses how The Asia Foundation’s Data for Development (D4D) project has been trying to grapple with this issue by triangulating among three approaches.
The first requirement of evidence-based planning is access to a supply of timely and reliable data. In Nepal, local governments produce lots of data, but it is too often locked away in multiple information systems operated by each municipal department. Gaining access to the data in these systems can be difficult because different departments often use different, proprietary formats. These information siloes block a 360 degree view of the available data—to say nothing of issues like redundancy, duplication, and inefficiency—and they frustrate public participation in an age when citizens expect streamlined digital access.
As a first step towards solving this artificial problem of data supply, D4D helps local governments gather their data onto one unified platform to release its full potential. We think of this as creating a “data lake” in each municipality for decentralized, democratic access. Freeing access to this already-existing evidence can open the door to fundamental changes in government procedures and the development and implementation of local policies, plans, and strategies.
Policies and processes
Among the most telling shortcomings of Nepal’s legacy data policies has been the way that political interests have held sway in the local planning process, as exemplified by the political decision to distribute equal funds to all wards regardless of their unequal needs. In a more rational system, information about population size and other socioeconomic data about relative need would be a much more important factor in the allocation of funds. The National Planning Commission, a federal agency, has even distributed guidelines to Nepal’s local governments indicating that budgets should not simply be equal from ward to ward. But in practice, municipalities tend to allocate the same budget to each of their wards because elected leaders fear they will lose votes if they don’t get an equal share. Inevitably, ignoring evidence of relative need leads to the ad hoc allocation of funds to small, fragmented initiatives that mainly focus on infrastructure while overlooking other issues.
The application of available data to the planning cycle is what evidence-based planning is all about. The key is to codify the use of data throughout the planning process. So, D4D developed a framework and guidelines for evidence-based budgeting and planning for elected officials, committee members, and concerned citizens.
It is important that local policymakers feel ownership of this framework to ensure its implementation. For this reason, the guidelines were developed with the close participation of municipal representatives and local stakeholders, and D4D makes sure that the guidelines are approved through the municipal legislative process to guarantee their legitimacy. Because the planning process includes the participation of other stakeholders besides municipal officials—ranging from youth clubs and NGOs to the small civic bodies known as neighborhood units—and because the projects demanded by these stakeholders are rarely justified with evidence or even with budget projections, D4D invests substantial energy in sharing the framework and guidelines more widely among these groups.
Deliberation and ownership
To reap the benefits of effective governance, evidence must permeate the practices and procedures that are used to make choices that affect citizens’ everyday lives. Many municipalities, however, have encountered challenges trying to coordinate between the mayor and the deputy mayor, the mayor and the municipal board, and elected representatives and municipal staff. Studies show that mayors have the greatest influence in swaying resource projections and budget deliberations away from evidence-based practices. Rather than discussions based on evidence, planning meetings are often dominated by horse-trading between political parties and the mayor, the mayor and the deputy mayor, and the ward chairs. Elected representatives and chief administrative officers heavily influence the selection and execution of projects, often neglecting people’s actual needs. Local governments cannot create their long-term vision in a participatory way when development decisions are dominated by mayors.
Thus, having good evidence and a sound formal process is not enough; changes in individual behavior are required to ensure that evidence is used to allocate resources in a participatory and responsive manner that is equitable and inclusive. Growing understanding of the usefulness of data and how best to apply it will have a powerful, improving effect on which projects are prioritized and selected. Therefore, D4D makes an effort to bring together local stakeholders both in and out of government to examine the data during project selection and policy formulation. D4D believes that, through evidence-based political deliberation, everyone will work together to weave a common vision and goals that will give all wards and settlements a sense of ownership in the process of development.
Evidence-based planning and policymaking are demanding, but they are essential for effective local government. First, there must be a supply of timely and reliable data to provide a foundation for high-quality decision-making. Second, standards and guidelines for the use of this data must be established at all levels throughout the planning and policymaking process and legitimized by local legislation. Third, for the institutionalization of evidence-based practices, data-driven deliberation is important at each step of policymaking—from public consultations at the fundamental settlement level up to project selection by the municipal council, with many stakeholders involved along the way.
As the government bodies closest to the lives of citizens, Nepal’s still-young local governments have a mandate to deliver services and advance local development. Until local governments adopt the practice of using evidence in their work, they will fall short of this mandate. The tripartite approach presented in this essay provides a map for Nepal’s local governments to advance the use of evidence-based policymaking in the country.
Sajana Maharjan Amatya is the project director and Pranaya Sthapit is the deputy director of The Asia Foundation’s Data for Development project in Nepal. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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