Good communications is not enough to get evidence into policy
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I originally shared these thoughts on the Evidence-Based Policy in Development Network (ebpdn) and after sparking some discussion, I thought it’d be good to also share them here on INASP’s Practising Development blog too.

A colleague, Kirsty Newman, was recently looking for an example of research that had influenced policy not because of the quality of the findings but because of the lobbying and communication skills of a researcher and/or think tank.

After thinking about this, I’m not actually sure that such an example exists, for three different reasons:

1. Researchers’ main audience is usually other researchers. I have read some data on this somewhere but can’t seem to find it again (sorry!) –  it was something like the percentage of researchers that aim to influence policymakers is as little as 20% while the rest tend to influence other colleagues. Although not the data I was thinking of, this blog post says something very similar. From all the research that aims to influence policy, a very small percentage achieves its goal, and if it does, the process is usually anything but direct. As we already know it’s a long process — other researchers take up findings; re-frame the questions; add more knowledge; and then, eventually, this knowledge may be taken-up by policymakers, (having possibly been passed through media first or at least through other discussion groups). So if research is eventually successful in influencing policy, the final message is likely to be slightly different from the original finding. Many factors influence the process so I wouldn’t say that good communication skills were the only factor here — or even the main one. Research uptake: what is it and can it be measured? is a really interesting blog on this subject.

2.  Related to the above, the reason why research is taken-up by policymakers might not be because someone had good communication skills (only). These skills may help but the decision to use certain findings are also probably influenced by the policymaker’s other interests at the time he/she got hold of the evidence. If it’s not convenient at the time then I don’t think certain research would be used. An Alliance for Useful Evidence blog post entitled How to get policymakers to use more evidence discusses this issue in more detail.

3. Think tanks and Policy Research Institutes (PRI) in developing countries usually invest in research first — that is their priority. After a while they may think of having a communications role (not even a team) that can push out their findings. It is unlikely that think tanks/PRI in developing countries influence research only because they have good communications as, unfortunately, they don’t generally invest in that area. Related to the article I cited above, policymakers usually get their information from people and/or institutions they trust — is this related to the communications skills that research/institution has? Is this a good or bad thing?

I guess what I am trying to say is that there are very different types of researchers — from those interested in influencing policy to those that do not factor policy influence into their work at all. If a research team is ever successful in influencing policy, it will happen for many different reasons and through many complex processes. Finding an example of where bad research has influenced policy can be found, but this will not necessarily support the point that my colleague was trying to make. I fear that we are simplifying the process of influence here and we are failing to understand the context in which policymakers work. Some people that got involved in this debate on ebpdn put it much better than I did and so I will paraphrase here: what I fear is that the debate on international development is turning into a “practical” debate that leaves values and ideology out. Of course, these are difficult to manage and to measure and therefore make our work more difficult and possibly more difficult to account for. But we cannot and should not avoid the fact that if we want to promote the use of evidence in policymaking, then, we have to consider the politics and complexity of it. I also liked what other members of the community pointed out and that we sometimes forget; research is a process and it is imperfect and incomplete.

If we start by recognising and assuming we are working in a political environment (that is with embedded values, cultures and ideologies) and that research is a process (an imperfect and incomplete one) maybe we can start thinking, as Vanesa Weyrauch suggested, of working in a networked way where research, communications and policy to be regarded as a web of opportunities that can potentially merge and evolve together. 

I am currently working for INASP on the VakaYiko Consortium. This three year project involves five organisations working primarily in three countries (Zimbabwe, Ghana and South Africa). The project starts with the understanding that the routine use of research to inform policy requires at least three factors to be in place:

  1. Individuals with the skills to access, evaluate and use research evidence
  2. Processes for handling research evidence in policy making departments
  3. A wider enabling environment of engaged citizens, media and civil society

The project works to build capacity at all three levels. Most importantly, the VakaYiko Consortium recognises the complexity of each research policy system and so is adapting it’s approach to the specific needs of each country. For example, in Ghana VakaYiko is working with the Civil Service Training Centre to develop a course in skills for evidence-informed policy making. This course is aimed at junior to mid-level civil servants responsible for sourcing information to support policy makers. At the same time, work in Zimbabwe is focusing on building relationships with key ministries, including the Ministry of Industry and commerce, to embed a continuous professional development (CPD) programme for researchers and analysts within the key departments. The focus of the CPD is again on skills needed to source and use research information. VakaYiko is also supporting an ongoing conversation on evidence-informed policy making in Zimbabwe by running policy dialogues and knowledge cafés that bring together policymakers, the public, academics, media and others with an interest in exploring the evidence base around key policy issues.

Although I think support to the supply side of research is still fundamental, the debate with my colleague makes me reflect further and actually reinforce the importance of supporting the demand side of research. The people that actually have to use evidence and make decisions need the skills to assess the evidence that is given to them. I think policymakers and their teams are more likely to fail in the decisions they make not because they were misinformed by Thinks Tanks with a good communications strategy, but rather because of the flow of information around them and the conditions in which they have to make decisions. The important issue here is where we get the knowledge from and how credible that source is, e.g. newspapers and internet sources vs. credible PRIs and researchers (see this post from Duncan Green on this subject).

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About Clara Richards

Clara is the Director of INASP’s VakaYiko programme, and leads INASP’s work on Evidence-Informed Policy Making. Clara’s role is to design and implement capacity building interventions to support research use and advocates for EIPM and to build strong relationship with EIPM’s partners..

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