Where to for the young at heart on Evidence-informed decision-making?

 By Isaac Choge

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At the heart of this blog is the question: How do you best impress on the young and energetic, without “polluted” minds, to take up Evidence-Informed Decision Making (EIDM) in totality, integrate it, and use it as second nature going forward in their careers?

One lunch time I was sitting on the famous “lunch stoop” on the verandah of House 2 at the world renowned Research Village at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) Bunting Road Campus, and the offices of the UJ Building Capacity To Use Research Evidence (UJ-BCURE) programme, and saw three of our well nurtured and enthusiastic Master’s students passing by. I was fortunate to have known at least one of the ladies last year, 2014, during her Honors project for Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E). Given I had a rapport with her, I ceased the opportunity and pounced, unexpectedly, with a loaded question:  “What do you ladies understand by evidence-informed decision making?” Oh boy, had I opened a can of worms! What followed was a clinical recital of M&E, data, information, and everything in-between. Clearly they were M&E students giving me text book material. Quite rightly, all their views were correct, untarnished, innocent, and not preceded by assumptions. Looking back, when I mirror this against what senior colleagues interact with on a daily basis, through a different and often tainted lens, I wonder what happened to the “purist” views.

When engaging colleagues and partners in policy and decision making about EIDM there are nuances one forgets, or rather overlooks, and assumes they are part and parcel of the arsenal in everyday use. These include the consequences of making decisions without basing the same on “some sort of” evidence, the political influences, the dangers of relying too much on what you think you know about the topic, ignoring critics, and calling the tune (just as in the one who pays the piper calls the tune…). The list is endless when you look at the available sources of evidence in order to make a decision. However, in practice, the products that are born out of the decision making sphere are sometimes so far off the middle ground that it is obvious most of the bad “sources” of evidence (variables) overshadowed the good of everything else. The process is so soiled that figuring out where we were and where we intend going are no longer clear. A situation is thus precipitated with one of having to make decisions knowing what is right (because I am assuming you did engage with M&E, data, information, and everything in-between) and not doing it. To put it simply, where did we lose the “purist” minds, the young and enthusiastic?

It is not the intention of this blog to define the robust debates around EIDM and models used to achieve high impact of the same, but, it is within its ambit to point out that between the training and use of EIDM, we have lost vital space, ground and may I add direction, and instead of filling that void with basics, we have started patch work of evidence that does not go beyond data (counting beans), thorough literature reviews that do not go beyond bed time reading just to make a point, focused research that does not begin with defining the question at hand, case studies that are not pilot events, political directions that are not reactive to the populous who have access to media stations, published systematic reviews, M&E that is beyond simple reporting, impact evaluations that are credible, critical appraisals that are not biased, good logical judgement, and backed (and proved) models for change. This mismatch between what young minds are learning and eager to practice, against “polluted” minds, who have the yardage of experience remains a paradox that is both unanswered and in need of redress. May I just add that indeed, my mind stands as one of the “polluted”!

Let us briefly engage two issues, which in my mind would answer on how best do you impress on the young and energetic, without “polluted” minds, to take up EIDM in totality, integrate it, and use it as second nature going forward in their careers: Capacity building and work experience. Let us examine capacity building: Many models are currently in use for capacity development in using evidence for decision making. Some of these are peer exchange particularly for executive staff (similar to the UJ-BCURE activities), the use of resource material particularly for those with access to libraries, information and referral to a central source for information, research, conference support to exchange ideas, technical approaches which are hands-on, counselling with assistance from a pool of those with more experience, skills training in both formal and informal settings, continuing education attached to an academic institution and academic progression with lively and informative debates such as seminars and short term training. All these have some sort of impact on the individual and the place of work, but not all will impress and stay with the young “un-polluted mind”.

Work experience from other fields have also advanced the thinking of how best to do EIDM. The health field has received particular accolades for fostering the way in terms of EIDM and evolving it into a practice that many disciplines nowadays benefit from. This is inclusive of amongst many other of systematically reviewing evidence, case definition including outliers when considering whole groups, cohort studies and what implications they have for the population at large, piloting in terms of acquiring information, and the principle of “first do no harm” when attempting to improve a situation that is unfamiliar. Young “unpolluted” minds  do not have the requisite experience, and are more unlikely to have the content knowledge of decision making, so this strategy would not help much in terms of enriching their “unpolluted” minds. However, the lack of experience and content knowledge is an opportune moment to crystalize EIDM processes and goals, and sow good seeds in these fertile minds, which may in future, yield a high caliber of decision makers that all institutions yearn for.