From supply, to demand to organisational change: The evolution of our evidence-informed policy work – Part 1

This week, participants from across the civil society, government, academia sectors are gathering online for the Evidence 2020 conference – with a goal to move forward the  thinking, practice, and action on the use of evidence in decision-making across the African continent. It seems like a good time to reflect on the evolution of our own work. In a two-part blog series, Emily Hayter, Senior Programme Specialist for INASP’s Evidence-Informed Policy and Practice (EIPP), shares our key learning and the direction we are heading in. Here she explores the most important shifts in our decade of supporting EIPP capacities.

Our evidence-informed policy work at INASP has one basic aim: to strengthen the way government agencies use evidence in policy making. But, while this goal has remained the same, over the past decade the thinking and practice have grown and the sector’s debates, actors and approaches have evolved.

Now in 2020, the EIP sector feels as dynamic and relevant as it did when I first joined INASP five years ago—and, as my colleague Jon has outlined, COVID-19 has given it new urgency and prominence.

In this piece, I look back at some of the most important shifts in our approach over the years—outlining some of the main assumptions we and others made along the way, and what we learned as we have gradually built our approach.

Starting with supply: is it about the researchers?

The initial interest in evidence use within international development stemmed from the recognition that, although potentially relevant research was being done, it wasn’t having the hoped-for effects in policy. The assumption was that researchers needed to be more strategic about engaging with policymakers.

These first activities focused on capacity building in research communications, influencing plans and M&E of policy influence. This approach was later labelled ‘supply side’ because of its focus on researchers as suppliers of evidence and how they could ‘push’ evidence into policy. It was mainly designed and implemented through research funding structures and partnerships, rather than within governance projects.

About 10 years ago, INASP and others started looking beyond the researchers to the policymakers themselves. What did we know about the users of evidence: government agencies, politicians, MPs, civil servants and technical staff? To what extent was the evidence that was being produced answering their needs? And what were their capacities to absorb and use everything that was being offered to them?

We started experimenting through small activities within some of our larger programmes, offering training workshops on evidence access and appraisal skills for civil servants, parliamentary staff and MPs.

A next step: policymakers’ skills and knowledge are important too

In one of the first papers on the ‘demand side’ of research and evidence, Kirsty Newman (then INASP), ODI’s Louise Shaxson and Catherine Fisher (then IDS) argued that while the supply of research is important, it will only be used to inform policy if it can be accessed and understood by policymakers.

Donors also recognised that communicating research effectively was only one part of the picture.  In 2013, INASP secured a grant to lead a consortium under DFID’s Building Capacity to Use Research Evidence (BCURE) programme, which funded six consortia to experiment with approaches to building government capacity for evidence use, mainly in Asia and Africa. Our VakaYiko Consortium included partners in 12 countries and trialled a wide range of approaches to capacity development at different levels, from training and mentoring to organisational reform and brokering.

A step further: demand for evidence isn’t just about individual skills

In 2017 we outlined in this report what we and partners had learned about developing capacity of governments to use evidence for policy. Our experience led us to a holistic, multi-dimensional view of evidence capacities: civil servants’ individual skills and knowledge are important parts of the puzzle, but so are relationships (both formal and informal) within and between government departments; organisational cultures, planning structures and budgeting systems which make up the everyday machinery of government. It pointed to the need to better understand these organisational factors, alongside the external political economy contexts and knowledge systems the organisations sit within.  

Since then, the evidence-informed policy sector has continued to grow, and our approach has evolved alongside it. We have been inspired and informed by colleagues across the development sector and beyond, and we’ve learned much from the many government agencies we’ve met who are working to strengthen evidence use, from the Ministry of Education in Trinidad and Tobago to the Parliaments of Kenya and Uganda; the Ghana Environmental Protection Agency and the Ghana Statistical Service, the UK parliament and the European Union.

We’ve also taken a much stronger focus on adaptive management in this period, exploring design thinking, problem driven iterative adaptation (PDIA) and different ways of embedding learning loops within our project work. This is helping us think and explore problems more creatively. In Part 2 tomorrow, I share the key lessons we’ve been learning in the last few years.

Photo credit: Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash

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

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