Thursday, 26 April 2012

Policy influence or evidence-informed policy: what is the difference?

By Catherine Fisher

“We all want a culture of evidence informed policy making, don’t we?” asked Dr Ruth Nyokabi Musila from African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP) at the opening of her presentation at the International Conference on Evidence Informed Policy.

It was a commitment to this ideal that had united over 50 researchers from 4 continents, brought togther in Ile Ife, Nigeria, earlier this year. I was attending under the auspices of the IDS Mobilising Knowledge for Development Programme (MK4D) and had been invited to present and chair a session.

Policy influence is not the same as evidence informed policy
Throughout the conference I was struck by a blurring between the (admittedly closely related) concepts of research having policy influence and evidence informed policy. The difference seems pretty obvious to me but I sometimes struggle to explain it.  

Let me try this…  
  • Effective research communication (which aims to influence policy) is indicated by change in policy/process/discourse based on the research findings you are communicating.

  • Effective evidence informed policy is demonstrated by a culture (systems, processes, attitudes and behaviours) that mean that people in decision making processes regularly engage with research from a wide range of sources when formulating, implementing, reviewing policy.

And to illustrate this difference, here are two examples from the conference:


Firstly, Kakaire Ayub Kirunda, shares his learning on how to influence policy. He observed that  “while members of parliament might be an ultimate target, they hardly have time and it is their clerks and assistants who do the lion's share of their research..."

He adds that, in a conversation with Ugandan MP, Honurable Obua Denis Hamson, who also chairs the Science and Technology Committee of Parliament, about how he would want researchers to approach him with evidence, the MP suggests “Probably the easiest way is to first give me a brief summary of your research findings. We can start from there.”

Ah yes, the ubiquitous policy brief. IDS' Impact and Learning Team recently conducted some research around the effectiveness of these as a communication tool, but that is for another blog.

By contrast, an example of supporting evidence informed policy was brilliantly illustrated by Jorge Barreto. He described the creation of an “Evidence Centre” in PiriPiri, a town in a poor region of Brazil. The Centre promoted the use of health evidence locally to improve municipal decision-making process.

Over a beer the night before, Jorge had told me that infant mortality rates in Piripiri were far lower than in other similar towns, his colleague added “20 babies survive a year because of these local policies”.  

Jorge’s presentation concluded that “current efforts to improve local government’s capacity to use research evidence to define problems, find tested interventions, assessing the quality of global and local evidence and translating evidence to key stakeholders are worth continuing. This is our little contribution towards addressing the knowledge to action gap.” Not so little for those children who survive and their families.

I feel it is worth maintaining the distinction between policy influence and evidence informed policy as the activities you undertake to influence policy with research will be different to those you might undertake if you wish to bring about a culture of evidence informed policy.

Such as...Research communication versus knowledge brokering

Two areas of activity which seek to either influence policy and/or support evidence informed policy are research communication (sometimes referred to as research uptake) and knowledge brokering (sometimes referred to as knowledge mobilisation). These distinct activities also often get confused (see my earlier post Buzzing about brokers).

Working closely with IDS Knowledge Services, engaged in knowledge brokering activities, and the IDS Communications Team, focused on supporting IDS research, this is something we decided to explore in more depth at an Impact and Learning team ‘learning lab’, a reflective practice tool we’ve been using to create a space for shared learning.

Here are some notes from the lab, which focused on "desired outcomes": 

"Research Communication and Knowledge Brokering get confused because while they start from different places (one piece of evidence versus many pieces of evidence) they use similar methods and communication tools (e.g. policy briefs). However, they can be untangled again when you look at the outcomes they are trying to achieve:
  • Desired outcomes of ‘Research Communicators’ relate to a change in a specific/thematic policy or practice i.e. you know RC activities have succeeded if a specific policy decision is made
  • Desired outcome of ‘Knowledge Brokers’ relate to a change in the information-seeking and decision making behaviour of policy/practice actors i.e. you know KB activities have succeeded if decision makers consider a diverse range of evidence to inform their decisions

Importantly, power matters: in Research Communication, the relationship between the researcher (or research institution) and decision maker makes a difference to whether the decision maker gets to hear about a specific piece of evidence (e.g. informal encounters, ‘Beer Buddies’) whereas knowledge brokers, such as the IDS Knowledge Services, can work to equalise that power imbalance for less powerful researchers (or research institutions). For example, the British Library of Development Studies' work around improving access to research published in the global South

I will explore how ‘politics’ comes to play on these two strands of research uptake activity in my next blog. Meanwhile, you can follow me on Twitter @CatherineF_IDS; I'm currently at the K* Conference in Hamilton, Canada.