Increasing the role of evidence in policy: making connections across the research and knowledge system

The campaigns preceding the UK’s referendum on EU membership and the US presidential election have led many to worry about the rise of an era of post-truth politics. “Post-truth” has even become Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year.

So it was refreshing to be part of the VakaYiko symposium in Accra, Ghana in October. A consortium of partners from Ghana, Zimbabwe and South Africa, the VakaYiko team have spent the last three years exploring approaches to the use of evidence in policy making. The symposium highlighted some of the great strides that have been made in getting evidence into public policy and decision-making, in countries from Kenya to Peru.

Michael Falade, Anne Lan K. Candelaria, Richard Lamptey, Ronald Mutasi and Thywill Kpe on the panel in Accra

I chaired a session on research and knowledge systems, with the aim of connecting discussions on evidence to wider thinking about research and knowledge systems. As the session progressed, it became clear we all agreed that if we want to increase the role of evidence in policy making, we need to take a ‘systems approach’: recognise the wide range of organisations and individuals involved, understand the environment in which they operate (its norms, rules, incentives), the way they interact and influence each other, and put more energy into making connections between them.

But what do we mean by a ‘research and knowledge system’?

Research and knowledge systems

A research and knowledge system is the system within a country that connects all of the actors involved in generating and using research and other forms of knowledge. The system includes: those who produce it, those who communicate it, and those who ultimately use research and knowledge in policy and practice, as well as the various organisations and individuals that support and enable this system in different ways.

In addition to research institutes and universities, research and knowledge systems include NGO and civil society organisations, those who fund and set policy (governments, foreign donors), and those who regulate knowledge in particular sectors (such as professional associations). They also include those who provide the vital services that research depends on, from library consortia and NRENs, special high-speed broadband and IT service providers , to national research publishing initiatives such as SciELO or Journals Online.

While the purpose of some parts of the system may be to produce and provide research which has direct policy or practical benefit, others may play a wider ‘knowledge-generating’ role, pursuing practically ‘useless’ research that nonetheless pushes the boundaries of knowledge forward, tests new ideas, and offers new ways of thinking about the world.

The research and knowledge system, INASP sketch

The challenges of a system-based approach

A number of common challenges emerged as we shared our thoughts on and experiences of engaging with research and knowledge systems.

Connecting across the system

The starting point for our conversation was the proposition that if we want research to inform policy and practice and vice versa then we can only do this by connecting across the system.

“If another part of the system isn’t working, it’s often hard to achieve your goals” Thywill Kpe

It sounds simple, but it was clear from discussion how often people and organisations work in silos, pursuing related aims but on parallel, or even sometimes diverging tracks. As Thywill Kpe from Ghana’s Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection commented, if another part of the system isn’t working, it’s often hard to achieve your goals.

Many of the comments made during the conversation reflected familiar and longstanding concerns: poor links between researchers and policymakers; lack of understanding of respective needs or interests (or how to bridge these).

The timing of connections was also mentioned. We agreed that bringing researchers together with those in policy and practice at the beginning of a research project, rather than the end, is crucial if research is to contribute to day to day problems.

“ If at the beginning of research we engaged with each other and knew each other’s needs then it would not be that difficult — not at the end but from the beginning” Thywill Kpe

Recognizing the less visible parts

Another particularly important reflection was that we often forget to engage with critical, but less visible, parts of the system. We talk about connecting researchers and policymakers, but what about the organisations and individuals responsible for making research available, developing the IT systems, managing the publishing platforms and communication facilities? These are important parts of the system too.

The system also operates at different levels. As Ron Mutasi from ZeipNET in Zimbabwe explained, they support individuals to strengthen their skills and understanding, as well as working with policy organisations to develop their institutional process for engaging with evidence.

Organisational (dis)incentives

It’s also important to recognize how often institutions and organisations act as obstacles rather than enablers of this kind of system working, Each organisation has its own interests, and these create different incentives for staff, which often pulls individuals away from collaboration, instead of pushing them together.

In the university system, international rankings are particularly powerful and often override local needs. As Anne Lan K. Candelaria explained, although her university has a clear social mission, academics are rewarded for the articles they publish in top journals, because it’s these articles that keep the university high up the rankings, securing its prestige and attracting students, not efforts at outreach.

Anne has had to defend her work with local government education officials as an important contribution to the knowledge system for improving education in the Philippines, above producing articles for other academics to read.

“This room views knowledge differently to how others, outside this space, do” Anne Lan K Candelaria

So what about practical ways forward?

A lot of the ideas for improving systems that arose have no doubt been suggested before in other forums, but it’s always worth echoing those that have promise.

Engaging early and directly

Thywill Kpe suggested that masters and PhD students could try to identify policy-relevant research issues for their theses through direct contact with local policy and practitioner communities — so that they develop an engagement with users from the beginning of their research careers.

It’s all about the people: Vaka Yiko members in Accra

Better communication

In some cases it’s hard to know who is doing what, to identify people with shared interests, and to build on existing work within a county. This can lead to duplication in effort rather than strategic use of limited resources. As Richard Lamptey explained, it’s easy for two different teams at two different universities in Ghana to be undertaking the same research but entirely disconnected from each other. Online research communications platforms could be an option (though there are already many of these), but people regularly coming together in person around shared interests could also be valuable. Formal conferences may not always be necessary — more informal gatherings might be better, and less expensive to organise and attend.

Finding common ground

I was struck by the need to find common ground. It’s seems there’s a tendency for communities within a research and knowledge system to focus on the differences between them. In Nigeria, for example, policy makers and researchers tend to see each other as competitors, according to Michael Falade from CPPA.

The only way we’ll overcome these obstacles — unless those higher up the chain dramatically alter the prevailing incentives — is to actively seek common ground. And that requires a willingness to compromise. It may also mean taking smaller steps, nudging change in the wider system where possible, rather than aiming for large-scale overhauls.

Making the most of relationships

The conversation also showed the importance of the spaces between formal organisations or institutions — the areas where different communities or individuals can come together and avoid the constraining norms. As Ron commented, sometimes the formal system isn’t the way to build the connections: informal relationships that can be slowly institutionalized are the way forward, leading eventually to trust and co-production.

Working with the system

All these reflections chime with what my colleagues and I have been thinking for the past few years.

Back in May 2014, Alex Ademokun and I authored a series of blogs on the importance of understanding the various people and organisations interested in research and knowledge as part of a system, and the importance of trying to engage across the system. I’ve mused more on the topic since — and about who is really driving agendas.

But there’s a second, more difficult dimension to consider too: how to actually work in a way which ‘dances with this system’ — understanding the system before we act, but continuing to improve our understanding as we work within it. This is a much trickier issue.

A lot has been written on systems working, much of it recognising and dealing with complexity, on the need to deal with power, to be flexible and adaptable. And when it comes to a national research and knowledge system (with porous boundaries, and links to regional and international systems of course) it’s only those within who can really put this into practice.

But ultimately these questions still need answers, whether from the inside, or from outside supporters and enablers.

With thanks to Clara Richards and Natalie Brighty for very helpful comments on the first draft