Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Consuming knowledge or constructing it? - Evidence from the field

By Sunder Mahendra

I heard an interesting comment in India recently from an academician and a consultant to local government – someone who has influence on policy processes. “Knowledge is not valued in policy making circles. Knowledge is sacrificed at the altar of representative democracy”. In speaking of knowledge, he meant evidence collected through research.

The example he went on to give was: if a bus stop is demanded by residents of a locality, the local elected representative will direct the authorities concerned to set it up immediately. The authorities follow these instructions as a routine and set up a bus stop, not wanting to take up issue with the elected representative. The decisions are reactive. Neither the elected representative nor the local authorities refer to the history and geography of the locality. There is little research or evidence that is accessed to consider the viability of the location of the bus stop, or the best design and construction parameters. The incentives for responding to the problem quickly are different for the elected representative and the authorities, but nevertheless both have an incentive to respond quickly. While the example may be an extreme case and related to service delivery, it illustrates some of the core culture and attitudes towards knowledge or evidence that permeate much of the decision-making circles.

I interviewed 20 policy actors in India recently during a study of information eco-system of policy actors. Among them three civil servants had this to say when asked what research/evidence they access and use before making decisions:-

  • Civil servant 1: “we talk to people affected by the issue, take decisions and recommend policy”
  • Civil servant 2 (an academician deputed to a decision-making role): “we commission research through experts where gaps in existing knowledge (in terms of what they already know) exist and put forward the recommendations for consultations”
  • Civil Servant 3: “commission research on the issue, put the recommendations up for discussion in committees and follow committee’s recommendations”

The civil servants I met indicated that most decision-making takes place at meetings and through elaborate mechanisms of consensus decision-making, within committees. They recognise reaching decisions by consultation and consensus as an accumulative process that assumes knowledge to be something collectively constructed through interaction (rather than something possessed by an individual or by an organisation). They were suggesting what they perceive to be an alternative approach to knowing.

Policy makers, in this case the civil servants, in reality are challenging the primacy of research knowledge or the ‘evidence base’ that is promoted by agencies and organisations. They are in effect reclaiming their right to construct their own knowledge through their own means and seek recognition of their knowledge. The commissioning of research on issues through NGOs or experts they know, rather than referring to any existing body of research knowledge, is an extension of their own knowledge construction.  This is a self constructed knowledge, one on which they have a perceived control over, instead of a received knowledge passively gained through external sources.

Their resistance to research knowledge promoted as an evidence-base seems to rest on the assumption that there are no predetermined ‘right’ answers to any given problem.  Rather, that answers and solutions, are constructed and context specific. What might be the ‘right’ solution to a problem in one time and place is unlikely to be the right solution in another time and place. While not denying the existence of right solutions – or of truth – they argue that the question relating to a particular problem in every context may be the same, but the answers may be different.

The source of knowledge - be it local or international - is not so much of an issue with the policy actors. They appear to be less concerned with whether locally generated research knowledge is more relevant to local contexts than international research. The idea that research knowledge as an evidence base is something superior to their own constructed knowledge - constructed through consultations and discussions - is what they appear to be uncomfortable with. Their belief in their own methods of accumulating knowledge on a specific issue or “knowing”, even stops them from actively looking for evidence from neighbouring governments on similar issues. Similarly, there is little motivation for them to seek research evidence from other sources.  

This poses obvious challenges for knowledge intermediaries in terms of identifying who to reach or for stimulating demand for research. Whilst policy makers will continue to be a target audience, the question that arises is whether it is a good use of resources to put efforts into directly reaching policy makers? Would it be more useful to focus energies and resources in identifying their networks and people who they engage with to set the discourse? It is important for intermediaries to recognise that many societies in Asia and Africa are relationship-based rather than rule-based ones. Peer influence, societal norms play a far greater role in influencing individual behaviour. An analysis of the context that intermediaries engage with is critical to understanding how people and systems operate and what barriers and opportunities that presents for engaging more effectively.