Study: Civil servants in India and Pakistan lack basic interpretation skills

Evidence-based policy making is a much-used term these days. Some argue that there is lack of evidence. Some like Gulzar Natarajan argue that there is lack of “relevant evidence”.
A recent study, Three barriers that make it hard for policymakers to use the evidence that development researchersexplores barriers that make it hard for policymakers to use the evidence. It’s based on responses from 1509 civil servants of Pakistan and 108 civil servants of India. It has three important findings.

  1. Civil servants have difficulties interpreting basic data.
  2. They find that decision making is centralised, reducing the incentives for them to use data.
  3. They react differently to quantitative and qualitative data, based on the context.
The second and third aren’t surprising. We need to carefully take note of the first.
The researchers find
civil servants couldn’t interpret the table; their answers were no more accurate than if they had guessed randomly. When we asked open-ended questions, we found that many respondents misinterpreted the data in the table. Either they compared only the numbers in the top row or only the numbers in the left column. They did not convert those numbers into ratios.
This isn’t surprising. This has been my experience too. Civil servants that I had chance to interact with have tunnel visions. They aren’t updated on the latest research — one civil servant that I met who was responsible for running 600 schools of a state didn’t even know that an organisation called Pratham exists. They aren’t even curious to learn. They appeared to think that they know everything by the virtue of being in the system and hence any knowledge from outside is redundant.
Given this experience, I am not surprised at the findings of the report. Even the entrance exam to civil services doesn’t test for these skills. The only time it tried to include math aptitude paper — they faced a huge outrage.
That’s the reason - whenever Gulzar Natarajan says that development research doesn’t provide appropriate evidence that’s useful for civil servants — my argument has been that the “civil servants inaptitude to consume research and lack of curiosity” are bigger constraints. If they can’t utilise what’s existing, more evidence won’t be helpful (usual caveats regarding generalisations apply).

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