Bureaucrats frequently make difficult policy choices with limited information. Public service incentives to seek out quality information and schemes to lower the cost of accessing that information could transform decision-making and help support innovations that lead to growth.

Through its civil service, a capable state raises revenues and provides key public goods and services, using these capabilities to foster economic growth and enhance welfare. To make better-informed decisions related to public policy, the use of information by public officials is crucial. This brief seeks to understand the defining characteristics of information use in the public sector and considers potential policy options for navigating the constraints associated with that information use.

Civil service effectiveness is a key driver of economic development (Besley and Persson 2011, Acemoglu and Robinson 2012, Pepinksy et al. 2017). As resources are scarce in developing countries, efficient allocation is vital for providing effective public services. A significant movement towards ‘evidence-based policy’ is founded on the belief that policymakers should hold accurate information to inform their decisions. More informed public officials tend to make better decisions (Callen et al. 2018, Dal Bó et al. 2018, Hjort et al. 2019). However, we have relatively little empirical evidence on what public officials know and how they absorb new information (Rogger and Somani 2018).

In building a better understanding of how information is used, and the incentives that encourage its effective use, recent research in this area offers recommendations that have the potential to transform the quality of policymaking in civil services across the world. In this brief we present the defining characteristics of information use in the public sector and potential policy options for navigating the constraints associated with that information use. We look at recent research that focuses on: (i) how can we ensure better quality information is provided to public sector agents, and, (ii) how can we incentivise good use of this information?

Key messages

  1. The structure of the public sector hinders the access and sharing of information by bureaucrats.
    Governments are typically organised into sectoral monoliths across which there is little incentive to share information. This is partly because much government work is team based, so that civil servants can ‘free ride’ on colleague’s efforts to acquire information. These tendencies are reinforced by cultural norms.
  2. Reducing the cost of acquiring information increases access and use of data.
    Opportunities made accessible by information and communication technologies (ICT) and other data-sharing innovations reduce the costs of acquiring and absorbing information. This reduces monopolistic power, the incentive to free ride, and the importance of cultural norms.
  3. The right public service incentives are required for information to be used by policymakers.
    The existence of information alone does not necessarily lead to better decision-making. Public service management practices and incentives are crucial determinants of whether public servants acquire, share, and act on good information.
  4. Diagnostic data can nudge public administration towards greater use of evidence.
    Reforming the public sector’s institutional environment depends on the pre-existing incentives to acquire and act on information. This creates a potential ‘reform trap’ in which public officials do not have the incentive to empirically identify needed reforms.