I finally got around to reading the recent DFID evidence survey which I commend them for carrying out and for sharing so publicly. I read the review in two ways – the first, to get a sense of how a major development funder uses evidence. The second, to see how a well-resourced civil service department that values evidence (as demonstrated by the existence of the evidence to action team and the survey itself) deals with the challenges of research uptake.
I am particularly interested in the second point because the VakaYiko consortium I manage works to strengthen evidence use in departments in more resource challenged environments and with other pressures that make research use difficult. I should also point out that VakaYiko is funded under DFID’s Building Capacity to Use Research Evidence (BCURE) programme.
This is not a review of the report which was mainly for an internal audience but I will encourage anyone that’s interested to read it. However some of the issues coming out of it struck me as similar to what I hear from senior civil servants in developing countries. The paper has others but some interesting ones, a mix of headline findings and highlighted quotes from the paper, are touched on below:
- ‘The biggest barriers to using evidence are easily finding it and having enough time to consider it.’ – I have heard variations on this observation almost everywhere I discuss the challenges to research use. It is often compounded in environments where decisions are made quickly in response to ever changing politics, where individuals with skills are overburdened and where demands for evidence are made with tight deadlines.
- ‘There is a reluctance to make judgements about evidence. People are more concerned with making it appear like they are using evidence well but lack confidence in assessing it well.’ – When we fall into development sector speak we say people lack capacity to use evidence but we mean the same thing – there are people who do not have the skills needed to properly assess research and the confidence to base decisions on evidence
- … staff also want more training on a range of subjects that is better targeted and tailored to different needs… – This is the holy grail of capacity building. How do you ensure that training is useful, relevant and reaches the people that need it? I would like to see how DFID tackles this in the coming years.
- In my opinion, outside the professional cadres, there is less a question of lack of access to evidence and more a lack of interest in actually looking for and using evidence. This can’t be entirely explained by a lack of time to look for evidence.
These points suggest that some of the challenges we talk about when discussing research uptake are not ‘development’ issues per se and there is something to be said for sharing how these are tackled in other sectors. Perhaps BCURE can even inform how DFID supports research uptake internally.
The last point that I think is worth highlighting from the report is one of the emerging messages from DFID staff: We need more proof of how using evidence leads to better development results. A lot of criticism of research uptake efforts revolves around this theme. We sometimes take it as a self-evident truth that better use of evidence leads to better development outcomes. This challenge is not just for DFID but for everyone working in this area. We know it’s not easy – it is difficult to prove a causal relationship when other factors are considered. Where policies have been made without considering evidence you have the challenges of the counterfactual. Nevertheless this is an important area and one that I hope the BCURE programme can contribute to.
Once again I commend DFID for sharing this document (and the methodology). Over and above the actions DFID takes internally to strengthen evidence use I think this exercise has a second potential value – to provide DFID an opportunity to reflect on the challenges to research uptake in a UK department with a strong evidence team and how much more difficult these challenges are in countries where resources and capacity are limiting.