In practice, which theories are we using?

Why are academic and technical theories so poorly used in public management decision-making processes?

It is very common to hear that an idea works in theory, while, in practice, it is completely different. Experienced in many areas, the idea of the difference between theory and practice refers to the impossibility of incorporating into everyday application elements of abstract and rigid theoretical models. This occurs because these models often simplify reality or distance themselves from it through assumptions that are revealed fragile when confronting concrete situations.

Although this is an often seen situation, the idea that practice and theory are separate doesn’t seem to hold. Any practical activity is based on a theory about the world and how concrete choices will affect reality to build the desired situation. No one chooses to do X or Y without previously estimating that these same variables represented the most appropriate option for that situation. That is to say, behind any practical decision-making effort, there is a theory which may be explicit and conscious, may be tacit, or may be unknown to those who made the decision.

In public management, the reality of this is constant: no public policy is built without a set of hypotheses (even if not explicitly stated or structured) about how each choice will lead to the desired goal. What often occurs, however, is that this "pragmatic theory" is rarely grounded in the formal and technical theories of how we should plan and execute a public policy. Even less frequently, the theory is based on the scientific knowledge available about the problem that is being addressed.

Thus, the question is not why theory and practice are detached. Rather, the question is why the more formal and technical theories may be so far from the "pragmatic theories" used in everyday management. This distancing is due to a series of barriers and mismatches, which can be summarized as the different rhythms, languages ​​and interests that currently exist between managers and researchers.

These differences have prevented a greater integration between these groups, generating two types of theories, with their strengths and weaknesses: one theory that is based on scientific knowledge, but distanced from the concreteness of everyday life; and one that is aligned with local and specific factors (critical to the implementation of a policy), but does not take into account all technical and scientific knowledge already available to the issue at hand.

The Veredas Institute believes these two fields of knowledge - theoretical and practical - are fundamental for the improvement of our public management. It is urgent that bridges be built between these two fields so that they can be integrated into the process of designing and implementing public policies. For this, we want to deepen and disseminate in Brazil the debate on Knowledge Translation and Evidence Informed Public Policies.

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