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How National Leaders Use Data

Leaders everywhere are inundated with data and advice. It’s very popular these days to extol the virtues of data-based decision-making, but given the daily realities of politics and governance, it’s worth asking how much of it actually gets used.

AidData, a research lab at the College of William & Mary in the United States, has produced one of the first ever analyses of how governments consume data. The lab examined the data and analyses that national leaders consult and what they find genuinely useful. The report is based on a survey of nearly 3,500 public officials and development practitioners in 126 low- and middle-income countries.

Finding Solutions

The good news is that leaders don’t just use data to track progress or evaluate programs. They also use it for forward-looking tasks such as policy design, agenda-setting and advocacy (Exhibit 1). However, the findings suggest that data providers should make more of an effort to “assist leaders in adjudicating between different policy issues and prescribed solutions.”

Exhibit 1: For Which Purposes Do Leaders Find Information Helpful?

Source: Decoding Data Use, AidData

When asked how they learn new information, leaders clearly prefer the personal touch, e.g., formal meetings or informal face-to-face communications (Exhibit 2) rather than media or technical papers.

Exhibit 2: How Do Leaders Become Familiar with Information?

Source: Decoding Data Use, AidData

U.S., Not China

Leaders rely heavily on domestic government sources, the research found, despite questions about the reliability of data in some countries. They are also paying more attention to local civic groups, a “burgeoning” source of information, though this information is rated much more helpful in countries with more political freedom.

Among international sources, development partners are viewed as the most popular and most helpful sources of information, above NGOs and think tanks. Among these development partners, multilaterals have more cachet than national aid agencies (Exhibit 3).

Exhibit 3: Whose Information Do Policymakers Report Using, by International Development Partner?

Source: Decoding Data Use, AidData

When leaders were asked which development partners had the most helpful—not merely the most used—information, the U.S. was the only country to make it into the the top 10, alongside the World Bank and UNDP. China ranked near the bottom.

Multilaterals with a focus on a particular region or aid sector—including the regional development banks, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria—were viewed as particularly helpful.

Think Local

Leaders place a high premium on “analysis that ‘gets it.’” As a result, they overwhelmingly prefer data that “reflects the local context” (Exhibit 4). Leaders are also seeking novel insights and concrete policy recommendations, not just raw data.

“If information providers want to capture the attention of busy policymakers, they must move beyond generics to offering novel, specific takes on the most pressing issues at hand and propose practical policy solutions,” the authors assert.

One strategy for achieving these goals: Partner with local “infomediaries” who can identify “policy implications and contextually appropriate solutions based upon the evidence” that they collect.

Unsurprisingly, for international sources of information, leaders cited the connection with “critical financial support” as among the top three reasons for why information was helpful. But when the authors drilled down, they found that the most generous partners were not always viewed as the most helpful information providers.

Exhibit 4: What Makes Some Sources of Data More Helpful to Leaders?

Source: Decoding Data Use, AidData

When the authors asked officials how data providers could have made their information more useful, the importance of local consultation became clear (Exhibit 5).

Source: Decoding Data Use, AidData

Data providers “need to engage target users as co-creators throughout the data production and dissemination process to increase uptake,” the report states. “Greater inclusion of end users throughout the process of producing development data may dispel concerns of bias and irrelevance, as well as provide a forum to collaboratively identify the most contextually relevant policy solutions.”


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