Using Information-Based Policy Instruments

… a core concept used in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107

Concept description

Leslie Pal (reference below) describes when using information-based policy instruments may be the appropriate policy response.

Pal writes (p. 139):

“Information-based policy instruments include government-directed “attempts at influencing people through transfer of knowledge, communication of reasoned argument, and moral suasion in order to achieve a policy result” (Vedung & van der Doelen, 1998, p. 103). …

“Information-based policy instruments can include flyers, pamphlets, booklets, training, advertisements, reports, websites, and portals. Information-based instruments are considered the least coercive of all policy instruments since there is no obligation to act on the information and no supplementary inducement or penalty. Some forms of information can be designed to dissuade behaviours – a good example is the graphic health warnings on cigarette packages – while others are designed to encourage or promote certain behaviours – for example, Canada’s Food Guide helps us know how many legumes to consume per week. Other forms of information are just that: information that citizens require in order to make decisions and take actions. Government now places on the Web enormous quantities of information that is useful to citizens – information about programs, about services, and forms and applications.”

Pal notes that (p. 139):

“A key principle behind information-based instruments is that human behaviour is largely based on knowledge, beliefs, and values. Assume that the government’s policy objective is to reduce smoking. If knowledge, in the sense of facts at the smoker’s disposal, is incorrect or incomplete (e.g., the addictive qualities of nicotine), or beliefs are wrong (e.g., that smoking has no ill-health effects), or values are counterproductive (e.g., it’s “cool” to smoke), then smoking behaviour will continue unabated. Presumably, an information campaign that would enlighten smokers would change their behaviour, since it would appear to be manifestly in their interest to reduce or quit smoking. But of course we know that this is not always the case, and it alerts us to the fact that information-based policy tools work best when knowledge, beliefs, and values are consistent with direct and immediate self-interest. Even when “enlightened” by government information campaigns, smokers may continue to smoke because they like it, because they discount the negative health effects far into the future, because they struggle with temptation even though they know and try better (Schelling, 1984), or because they want to defy what they perceive as a hectoring, paternalistic government program (the boomerang effect).

He adds (p. 139-40):

“There is a paradox about information-based instruments – as benign as they might appear, ultimately the most powerful way to change behaviour is to change the knowledge, beliefs, and values upon which it is based. Autocratic regimes understand this very well, though they keep a “big stick” in reserve in case propaganda does not work. The use of information or exhortation in democratic states can seem much less objectionable; it is remarkable, for example, how public attitudes toward the environment have changed in only one generation and have become the foundation for acquiescence to blue-box programs, anti-littering campaigns, and picking up after your dog in the park. This is all to the good. But there can be concerns. In Canada, the federal government has for decades been the country’s single largest advertiser. There is a fine line between promoting public policies and programs, and self-promotion for the government of the day … And information can be used in a somewhat discomfiting way as a shaming instrument – in a sense, this is the use of information about rather than  information for. Our behaviour might be changed not because our beliefs have been affected by an information campaign but because of information about us that has been provided publicly to others (e.g., the publication of the names of “johns”). The use of shaming as a policy instrument is more widespread than we might assume; it relies on prevailing social norms and the understandable desire of most people to seek esteem and approbation (Bogart, 2011). Product labelling, for example, can be used to induce companies to remove ingredients that are deemed harmful to the consuming public. Regulatory agencies can issue lists of “worst offenders” (e.g., polluters), deliberately using the publicity as a way of inducing change. Graham describes this as “democracy by disclosure”: “Stated simply, such strategies employ government authority to require the standardized disclosure of factual information from identified businesses or other organizations about products or practices to reduce risks to the public” (Graham, 2002, p. 138). The interesting thing about the new disclosure instruments is that unlike warning labels that tell people what to do or articulate a harm or risk, mandatory disclosure simply puts factual information in the public domain (e.g., nutritional labelling) and lets people make up their own minds about risk. It can also be used as an instrument to increase transparency, as is the case in the federal government’s proactive disclosure policy, where travel and hospitality expenses of senior officials and contracts over $10,000 are posted on department websites. The combination of public disclosure laws (and the United States is considerably ahead of Canada in this respect), assiduous researchers and critics, and modern media give information a potency that is sometimes underestimated.”

See also: Pal’s Classification of Policy Instruments.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Designing the Delivery Model (core topic) in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107.


Leslie Pal (2014), Beyond Policy Analysis – Public Issue Management in Turbulent Times, Fifth Edition, Nelson Education, Toronto. See Beyond Policy Analysis – Book Highlights.

Bogart, W. A. (2011). Permit but discourage: Regulating excessive consumption. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Graham, M. (2002). Democracy by disclosure: The rise of technopopulism. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 12 April 2017.

Image: Instructables, How to Make a Brochure in Microsoft Word for a Mac, at, accessed 12 April 2017.