Friday, 7 October 2011

Getting serious about the evidence in policy making

By Nick Perkins
Earlier this year, the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation - better known as 3ie - convened a conference in Mexico called
Mind the Gap: From Evidence to Policy Impact.

I liked the idea of dedicating 3 days, dozens of presentations and hundreds of blog posts to that little ‘leap of faith’ which characterises so many theories of change about what research can do for development.

The problem that we are faced with is that the normative idea about how policy should be made – based on objective evidence – is seldom the reality that we are faced with - i.e. policy through political expediency. Political expediency is understood to be a range of contextual influences on the decision-making process. When described this way, there is something inevitable about it.

Current thinking is that this expediency can be addressed through mediation of research knowledge. This has given rise to the research mediation sector- institutions and individuals within institutions who seek to frame research in a way that it is accessible and relevant to people working in key policy spheres.

What this reveals is a kind of contradiction at the heart of the development knowledge sector. While we call for evidence-based policy making, there is also increasing investment in the complex process that shapes decision making. A way through this may have been revealed through a closer look at what research mediation actually entails.

A couple years ago, IDS held a series of ‘influencing seminars’ which revealed how different disciplinary communities nuanced their approaches to policy influence depending on how they understood change happened. None of them declared disdain for value of quality evidence. Instead they all expressed differing views of what constitutes ‘quality’ evidence and how to gain traction with those who might need it.

What emerged was a framework of four different ways of building an effective relationship between research and quality policy making.

The first is about generating as many policy options as possible. This emphasises the use of repositories to allow users to sift through the options for themselves.

The second is evidence-based and prioritises the familiar idea that the quality of the research evidence is what will best inform the quality of the decision. Systematic reviews are seen as crucial in the research mediation process here.

Third is the value-led idea of policy-making. There are many examples of this leading to bad science, but it is by far the most common type of public policy making. Networks and epistemic communities are critical to the mediation process in this case.

Finally we have the relational model of influence, which maintains that no amount of research will influence a policymaker if there is not a relationship which reflects equity and a balance of power -where a researcher or a mediator are themselves subject to some influence.

Clearly though, none of these frames are mutually exclusive. Perhaps the point is that we can support the complex reality of policy influence which draws on these without losing sight of the where we ultimately need to get to. In fact using a little political expediency ourselves can go a long way to cross what is too often seen as a small gap.