Covid-19 impact on evidence-based policymaking

BY TAFADZWA BANDAMA

What instantly comes to mind when one hears or reads about Covid-19 is its effects on life through morbidity and mortality.  Well-documented evidence on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic focuses on its socioeconomic implications. These well documented effects of Covid-19 include:

  • Supply chain disruptions as source and destination markets were closed due to lockdowns thereby affecting domestic and international demand.
  • Unemployment (in the formal and informal sectors) and changes in conditions of service as employers deployed survival strategies in response to the pandemic.
  • Logistical challenges for both humans and goods due to grounding of transport systems up to capillary levels.
  • High-cost environment due to the need for social distancing at the workplace.
  • The reliance on e-commerce was heightened thereby boosting the ICT sector.
  • The real estate sector felt the pinch of the pandemic as office space was abandoned in preference for home offices.
  • Gender dimensions of Covid-19 and many other socio-economic implications.

The Covid-19 pandemic has ravaged humanity in many different facets as highlighted above, however, not excluding evidence-based policymaking and implementation.

As the name denotes, evidence-based policymaking (EBPM) is an approach to policymaking that places a premium on the implementation of policy decisions based on scientifically tested evidence. It is premised on the fundamental belief that a “good” decision-making process that optimises utility requires evidence about the processes by which a policy, project or programme is going to be implemented. Using the best available evidence deriving from empirical research and evaluation, EBPM seeks to enhance the prospect of attaining better decisions, as well as achieving better outcomes in policy development and implementation.

EBPM is, therefore, about increasing the degree of certainty and predictability of decisions in estimating outcomes, in determining the target population, estimating the conditions in which the decisions apply, setting the time-frames as well as calculating the cost parameters, using both qualitative and quantitative data from research as well as administrative data. In this regard, EBPM seeks to bridge the gap between the information building up to the diagnostics surrounding the definition of a problem or a set of problems and the information building into and around the solution in the form of policy.

Type of evidence

Evidence-based policymaking uses both quantitative and qualitative data in different forms. Quantitative data includes statistical data from surveys, censuses, as well administrative data that are used to administer state departments and other agencies. Evidence can also be in the form of qualitative data that may include opinions derived from consultations with strategic partners and key stakeholders. These consultations may use in-depth interviews, focus groups, and/or direct observations of the problem/s upon which the policy will be developed.

Accordingly, the greater the amount of evidence surrounding the diagnosis of challenges, the greater the likelihood that policy interventions using the EBPM will resolve the noted challenges with greater but not absolute certainty. Conversely, sparse and disjointed information (evidence), gives higher probability to have suboptimal solutions and impact in resolving the challenges of targeted populations.

Advantages of EBPM

  • Reduction in wastage of resources

The use of EBPM is intended to identify policies and programmes that are more focused and targeted and therefore, likely to result in the effective dissolution of challenges with optimum use of resources.

  • Objectivity of policy options

Where subjectivity impacts policy choices, questions of rationality and objectivity may arise. EBPM is meant to focus on identified challenges and to scientifically determine policy decisions that are best suited to resolve the challenges without the influence of a subjective decisionmaking process.

  • Credibility of policies

Policies are intended to help resolve identified challenges.  The closer the solution is to the identified problem, the greater the likelihood that it will resolve the challenges. EBPM is rooted in the relationship between the challenges and the solution. The more the evidence supports the existence of a challenge the higher the likelihood of implementing a policy that resolves the problem.

  • Improve innovativeness

By its scientific nature, EBPM permits policy choices, even ones outside the regular, to undergo scientifically-based and proven evaluation processes and rigour. This is intended to determine the extent of their feasibility prior to adoption and implementation. In that regard, even new and previously untested policy options can be critically examined to determine their efficiency and effectiveness and enable target funding to innovative initiatives that deliver better policy outcomes.

  • Strengthening accountability

Collecting and reporting data on policy operations and outcomes makes it easier to hold policy makers and their partners accountable for results.

Disadvantages of EBPM

  • Unavailability of data

The premise of EBPM is the utilisation of research data (evidence) for isolating problems and developing solutions to them. The whole concept collapses or is conclusively compromised in the face of unavailability, inadequacy or inaccessibility of data.

  • Complexity of skills required

Evidence-based policymaking thrives on the use of scientific research methods. This assumes that practitioners using the tool need the requisite knowledge of scientific enquiry if they are to effectively benefit from its merits and to ensure the validity and reliability of policies (solutions) recommended therefrom. However, where skills are unavailable, the tool cannot be applied. In addition, even where the skills may be available, practitioners may be prone to confirmation bias – seeing only the evidence that supports their personal experience and judgment.

  • Dynamism of the environment

In an ever-changing environment there are limits to the relevance and applicability of scientific data generated from previous years in building policy solutions. This is especially so with the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic which has affected country demographics and economics.

  • Inconclusive nature of evidence

In the domain of social sciences, evidence is never conclusive. Experienced policy-makers are required to make decisions without the luxury of up-to-date, all-encompassing and conclusive data. They are required to do so on the back of professional intuition using the best available qualitative, quantitative and administrative data.

Covid-19 impact on EBPM

The Covid-19-pandemic-induced world-wide economic lockdown resulted in the failure to collect and synthesise qualitative and quantitative data. This resulted in undercutting the primary foundation of the EBPM approach that uses evidence as a basis for development and implementation of policy.

Covid-19 has caused a disengagement from a previously held pool of knowledge. EBPM is intrinsically rooted in the ethos of scientific research. While the field of scientific research continues to expand its horizons of knowledge, it largely remains a specialist area. In this regard, not only does it require specialist skills, the extent of the relevance and applicability of data used in the field is frequently dependent on the extent of the volatility of circumstances over time. Incremental changes in the environment give rise to marked predictability, and data can be collected (evidence) to isolate challenges and to build up effective evidence-based policy alternatives. Conversely, the Covid-19 pandemic has had the potent effect of disengaging previously held data, making it much more difficult to use the data in evidence-based policy development and expect the same measure of success in resolving identified challenges in a completely changed environment.

Lack of data due to lockdown

The lockdown has had, and continues to have serious negative multifaceted impacts. According to the Research report of 26 October 2020, many traditional research activities were suspended except those connected to Covid-19. This was implemented to minimise the spread of the highly infectious disease. Similarly, and according to the scientist.com, researchers are losing critical data due to the restrictions that have been placed on travel. This means that the data used as evidence to isolate challenges and their true nature, may not be available at all or it faces the real prospect of being obsolete. Accordingly, both qualitative and quantitative data that ordinarily could have been used in EBPM may not be available. This leaves data scientists at the mercy of administrative data.

In the context of the cited limitations, it becomes critical that evidence-based policy makers have access to administrative data from state ministries, agencies and departments in order to plug the data gaps created by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Providers of secondary data in both private and public institutions must be encouraged to adopt processes and procedures that enable ready and timely access to information.  This ensures that data is provided on a real time basis. Timely provision of data also enables policy makers to access the information when needed cognisant of the volatility of the circumstances and the risk that the data may have become obsolete and, therefore, no longer relevant in developing policy alternatives to address current challenges.

Bandama is an economist by profession and training. She possesses an in-depth knowledge and understanding of macro-economics and real sector economics, which skills she obtained while working for public and private entities. Her portfolio brief includes economic research, data analytics, policy formulation, analysis and advocacy. She is currently the chief economist of the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries and writes in her own capacity.