5 tips for researchers hoping to influence policy

Getting your research seen and used by policymakers is a frequent discussion topic among our AuthorAID network of Southern researchers. Emily Hayter, our Evidence for Policy Programme Specialist, recently shared some of her favourite research uptake tips with the AuthorAID community. We’re re-posting her blog here as a recap of advice from across the policy-influence sector.

Trying to get your research to influence policy is no small undertaking—but the good news is there’s an extensive global community working on this issue and developing insightful tools and learning products to guide researchers. At INASP, we value share experiences and advice with friends and colleagues at organizations like Research to Action, the Africa Evidence Network, ODI’s RAPID team and Politics & Ideas—all of us interested in research uptake and policy influence. Here are five of the most useful tips for researchers:

  1. Explore the broad contextual factors shaping your research area…

The role of politics in development issues has been increasingly recognized over the past decade. It’s clear that the political context fundamentally shapes how your research will be received—and used. So to achieve change and influence policy, we need to think beyond purely technical solutions to consider aspects of both ‘big P’ and ‘small p’ politics that affect uptake. What factors are shaping policy decisions in your area of research? What are the recent (or upcoming) changes and transitions that are affecting the sector you are seeking to influence? Who has decision-making power, and who is left out?

To help answer these questions, you could choose to do a formal Political Economy Analysis (PEA), following models like those of USAID or the World Bank—but there are other contextual analysis tools out there too, like the Context Matters Framework we’ve used inform recent work in Ghana and Peru with Politics & Ideas. Are you wondering where to start? ODI suggest five key questions to cover in this phase.

So, research uptake isn’t just about policymakers understanding research better, but also about researchers understanding the policy process better. Which brings us to the second point…

  1. …and get to know the evidence systems within policy-making institutions

Some researchers might assume that the main target of their research should be the relevant sectoral minister. But it’s unlikely to be the minister themselves who reads your paper. All of the government institutions we’ve worked with over the years have some form of internal research or policy analysis team that is responsible for producing reports, briefings and guidance to decision makers, as well as commissioning external research. Sometimes they run roundtables, committees or consultative exercises, like this recent national health research agenda in Ghana spearheaded by the Research & Development Division of the Ghana Health Service, or Parliament of Uganda’s Research Week, in which the parliamentary research department invited 18 leading research institutions to Parliament to showcase their work to MPs.

Getting to know the institutions you’re targeting is therefore a crucial step. AFIDEP’s profiles of ministries of health in Kenya and Malawi, and these profiles of the parliamentary research systems in Uganda, Zimbabwe and Ghana provide some insights here. Our Evidence Spotlight series gathers further examples of what these systems look like within policy-making institutions in our network, from Trinidad & Tobago to Ghana.

  1. Make a plan, and kick it off early

It’s not enough to wait until the end of your project—you need a plan, and ideally the plan needs to start early. If you’re wondering what to include, ODI’s ROMA Toolkit is a great starting point. It will guide you through the process, from conducting the preparatory analytical work, to developing a detailed engagement strategy.

Are you sceptical about the feasibility of engaging policymakers early? It can be difficult to involve people in to your research before it’s even finished, but if you need more encouragement, read this study of the impact of 30 health research projects in Ghana. Involving ‘users’ right from the initiation and design stages of the research, through the research process itself and the development of recommendations, can ensure that your research meets expressed needs of users and greatly increase the likelihood of uptake.

  1. Already at the end of your research? It’s not too late!

If you’re already midway through your research (or even at the end), don’t despair. If you’re planning some publicity around your research – such as a dissemination workshop or a media article – a quick analysis of the political economy landscape and some strategic planning of key stakeholders can help you make the most of this.

Some careful consideration of how you present your research can also go a long way—for instance, can you structure it as a dialogue instead of a presentation? Try to start a discussion with policymakers about what their challenges and priorities are, inviting their comments on your study recommendations rather than just telling them what you’ve found and what they should do about it. Think carefully about how to present your research for your target audience (via policy brief, infographic or powerpoint slides, or a combination of the above—see the experience of the EHPSA programme as an example of the importance of messaging and communications right at the end of a project).

  1. Approach with curiosity and humility

INASP works with both policymakers and researchers, and each tell us about the challenges of collaborating with the other. So one thing we’d stress is the importance of constructive collaboration—if you can approach the other side with an open mind, a genuine spirit of partnership and a willingness to learn about their context, you’re halfway there. As Ruth Stewart of the Africa Centre for Evidence writes, “When I ask decision-makers in government to explain their policy and planning cycles and to help me understand where research evidence might be useful, they are more responsive and engaged than when I try to tell them about their own decision-making processes and when they should incorporate research” (emphasis added)

One of the most interesting things about working at INASP is our relationships across research to policy systems—we work with NGOs, think tanks, universities, libraries, government ministries, parliaments and many others. We’d love to hear in the comments how you think we can make best use of this valuable network to strengthen sustainable research systems, from production to use.

Image: Research Week at Parliament of Uganda, 2016

Emily Hayter
Emily Hayter is Programme Specialist, Evidence for Policy at INASP.

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