Educational quality improvement program in Peru.
Governments in Latin America spend billions on social programs each year, reaching millions of people with critical public services. But can governments identify more cost-effective strategies to deliver these services?
Relying on data and evidence to improve policy design and implementation is one way to ensure cost-effectiveness. Partnering with specialized organizations familiar with applying evidence to policy can bring additional capacity and technical expertise to the table.
At the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), we partner with researchers and implementing organizations to generate cost-effective, data-driven solutions to reduce poverty. J-PAL’s Government Partnership Initiative focuses specifically on building such research and policy partnerships with governments who are open to innovation and learning.
Below, we outline some examples of this approach in Latin America, and highlight key lessons J-PAL has learned in its nearly ten years of successful government partnerships in the region.
MineduLAB: An education solution in Peru
In 2013, Peru’s Ministry of Education (Minedu) partnered with J-PAL’s Latin America and the Caribbean office (J-PAL LAC), Innovations for Poverty Action Peru, FORGE, and the World Bank to launch MineduLAB, an innovation lab for education policy.
Located at the Ministry of Education, MineduLAB designs, implements, and evaluates the effectiveness of low-cost interventions to improve policy management and educational outcomes, maximizing the use of administrative data. The ministry uses the results of these evaluations to inform its policy decisions.
Through these evaluations, Minedu has identified effective, scalable solutions to education challenges in Peru—and, by publishing evaluation results on the Minedu website, provide useful data for other education ministries and organizations around the world.
Minedu is one of the many government partners with which J-PAL LAC has worked to increase the use of rigorous evidence in decision-making. We have worked with governments across the region to test policy innovations, scale up effective programs, and build their capacity to use data and evidence in their policy design processes.
These partnerships take many forms. In Brazil, we partnered with the National School of Public Administration to develop a massive open online course to train Brazilian audiences on impact evaluation, and in Peru, we are partnering with the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations (MIMP) to identify and evaluate potential evidence-backed solutions to reduce gender-based violence.
Our partnerships are always designed around the government’s priorities, ensuring that research is relevant to key policy questions.
Through this work, J-PAL LAC has developed a wide base of knowledge on how to support governments in their efforts to design and implement innovative, evidence-based policies. From this knowledge, we’ve distilled five key lessons critical for successful government partnerships.
1.Find and support a government champion
In all of our government partnerships, proactive support from a top-level civil servant within the institution has been key, especially in the early stages. We look for champions who have the autonomy, ability, and authority to approve important aspects of the partnership, open doors to other key stakeholders, and signal to other people within the institution that the partnership is a high priority. The right champion will go above and beyond their day-to-day responsibilities to push the evidence-use agenda in the government.
Beyond identifying at least one key champion within a government, we aim to partner with institutions when there is some indication that the relationship will last beyond a single event, like a training course or series of policy briefs, and when the government commits to using evidence to inform decision-making on specific issues.
Successful government partners are willing to develop a clear strategy for evidence use from the beginning of their relationship with J-PAL. They are also willing to commit some of their own resources to the partnership, whether that means allocating funds to evaluation, hiring a staff member whose job it is to use evidence, or providing a desk in their office where J-PAL staff can work.
2. Build institution-wide partnerships
While having at least one key champion is crucial for the development and sustainability of these partnerships, buy-in from an individual or small group is not enough to lead to meaningful changes when making important decisions.
In MineduLAB, the partnership benefited from the fact that many civil servants within Minedu had previous training in economics and evaluation methods, and from active encouragement by Minedu leadership to use evidence in decision-making.
Many of our contacts there have spoken about an organizational culture of evidence that made the partnership possible. For example, Minedu collaborated with the IDB to conduct the first rigorous impact evaluation of the One Laptop per Child program, generating valuable lessons on the impacts of the program and potential strategies that can improve the program’s impact on learning.
Through our many partnerships with governments in the region, we’re learning some valuable lessons about how to strengthen and expand this culture beyond our key champions.
3. Make it someone’s job in government to use evidence
Applying evidence to design better policies and programs requires time and resources, so hiring staff whose role is to identify opportunities to use evidence to inform decisions, or in which new research could be generated, can help governments make space for this important work. In the early stages of our partnership with Minedu, a J-PAL Policy Manager sat at a desk in the Ministry to help conceptualize and implement MineduLAB. This on-the-ground presence helped ensure that no opportunities were missed.
4.Use data the government already collects
Creating user-friendly charts, maps, and dashboards can help officials see how their data can be useful. Administrative data can also be used to run low-cost evaluations that can demonstrate the usefulness of testing and refining programs.
Minedu’s extensive administrative data allowed for low-cost evaluations of the innovations that were being tested by the innovation lab. Without contracting survey firms or designing new exams, the ministry and researchers could still measure changes in outcomes by using the data they already had.
In organizations where administrative data is not well organized or available at the start of a collaboration, we have helped to identify and link datasets, and developed manuals for government staff to use the data efficiently.
5.Prioritize “quick wins” that build trust and demand for evidence
Starting a relationship with simple, low-cost evaluations, descriptive data analyses, or tailored training courses can open the door for future collaboration by demonstrating the usefulness of data, evaluation, and existing evidence.
In MineduLAB’s initial stages, J-PAL and IPA conducted evidence reviews to identify possible cost-effective solutions to the Ministry of Education’s priorities from around the world, mapped and linked all of the administrative data that Minedu already collected, and met with 16 implementing units to help them identify areas for evidence-based innovation.
We describe these strategies in more detail—along with some other examples from our experience throughout the region—on the J-PAL blog.
J-PAL’s mission is to reduce poverty by ensuring that policies are informed by scientific evidence. We’re committed to supporting organizations seeking to make evidence-informed policy decisions. To learn more about our work in LAC or globally, email Sam Carter at email@example.com.