How to turn knowledge into policy (without losing your job)

January 28, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

Together with Martin Walsh, our team’s research methods adviser, I’ve been browsing through some of the literature on how to ensure our work has impact……

After a year in which Britain’s top drugs adviser, Professor David Nutt, was sacked by the Home Secretary (interior minister) for overstepping the line between providing advice and advocating specific changes to policy, you’d be excused for thinking that in the UK at least, “evidence-based policy-making” was more rhetoric than reality.

Prof Nutt is an academic, and academics in the U.K. are paid by government to produce the evidence that policymakers need, not to contradict their favoured policies. Development practitioners, thank goodness, have a little more leeway. NGOs and think-tanks use research to lobby governments and international agencies, and 2009 was a bumper year for them telling knowledge to policyone another how to do so more effectively. Fred Carden’s ‘Knowledge to Policy: Making the Most of Development Research’ is the fruit of a study by IDRC in Canada (kudos to them for making it downloadable) that was originally designed to evaluate and enhance the influence of its own research on public policy in developing countries. Eight years, 23 case studies and several workshops later, IDRC has not only improved its own practice but also shared its hard-earned knowledge with the rest of us. The first section of the book summarises the findings of the study and is crammed with analytic typologies and tips on how to catch the ear of even the most resistant of policymakers. The second section comprises potted versions of the case studies, and the third and final section describes and reflects on the methodology of the evaluation itself.

Fred Carden sensibly concludes that the best way to start is for a would-be researcher to identify which of five ‘policy contexts’ best describes her/his situation, and then adapt research methods accordingly. They are:

1. Clear Government Demand
Implications: Give thanks. A relationship of trust between researcher and policymaker is critical. Researchers need to anticipate issues so their advice is ready on short notice. This requires researchers to be working on issues before they trigger policy interest and to think through policy implications of their findings before getting the policymakers’ call for help. It also requires clarity in communicating evidence and a reputation for delivering reliable work.

2. Government interest in research, but leadership absent
Implications: Think about issues beyond the research itself. What are the institutional and organizational implications of the evidence: if this evidence is going to be used, how will it be used? Where will decisions need to be made? What policy and regulatory changes might be implied and what effect can these have in other quarters (i.e. who are your likely allies and enemies)? Focus on your communication with decision makers, but you may also need strategies for ensuring that the interested public, that is people most likely to be affected by the use of the evidence, are fully engaged and able to assert influence on decision makers.

3. Government interest in research, but with a capacity shortfall
Implications: Propose institutional structures that draw few resources, or identify an economic pay-off that meets a priority need of government, or secure other sources of funds for implementation. You need to exert special communication skills to turn the subject into a high priority issue, perhaps by mobilizing public opinion behind their efforts.

4. A new or emerging issue activates research, but leaves policy makers uninterested
Implications: Focus on other communities that can help to promote the evidence and its merits to decision makers, e.g. advocacy groups, the media, affected communities, the private sector, and educational institutions. Stress the economic and social rewards of research implementation..

5. Government treats research with disinterest (sic), or hostility
Implications: Prepare for the long haul. You will need a strong sense of purpose and commitment to the future. Your research is preparation for a potential change of political interest. It may even be counterproductive to advocate too strongly for a course of action fiercely opposed in policy circles, and better to outlast the resistance and stand ready to seize an opening for influence when it appears.

Judge for yourselves whether other studies and guides provide better advice:

– a recent paper by Andy Sumner and colleagues at IDS, ‘Making science of influencing: assessing the impact of development research

– the many good things that have come out of the Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) programme at ODI. One of the latest of its products is a briefing paper by John Young and Enrique Mendizabal on ‘Helping researchers become policy entrepreneurs’, summarizing more than five years’ work (involving more than 50 case studies) on ‘understanding how policy processes operate in the real world’, culminating in the development of the RAPID Outcome Mapping Approach (ROMA) as a meta-tool (that incorporates many other existing tools) for translating research into policy.

That enough?

January 28, 2010
Duncan Green