Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Can a policy brief be an effective tool for policy influence?

By Catherine Fisher

Popular wisdom suggests that busy policy makers don’t want to read dense academic journal articles or books. Instead they want something short that summarises findings into accessible language and draws out the main implications. Consequently, policy briefs; short jargon-free summaries of research findings, have become an increasingly popular tool for researchers trying to achieve policy influence. So popular that a in a recent discussion on the Knowledge Brokers Forum, Nasreen Jesani, commented "there is policy brief fever…. People feel like it is the silver bullet and so there is an upsurge of policy brief creation."

Yet, anyone who has tried to produce one will know that policy briefs can be time consuming and expensive to create and disseminate, and study by IDRC Think Tank Initiative (pdf) raised questions about their popularity with policy makers

So how effective are policy briefs at influencing beliefs and prompting people to act differently?

Penelope Beynon from the Impact and Learning Team joined forces with others at IDS, 3ie,and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad) to try to find out. The team used a randomised control design to explore three research questions:
  • Do policy briefs influence readers?
  • Does the presence of an op-ed type commentary within the brief lead to more or less influence?
  • Does it matter if the commentary is assigned to a well known name in the field?
And it is this last question where IDS Director Lawrence Haddad bravely stepped in to test what has described as “the Haddad effect”. Did having his name onthe commentary make a difference?

Full details of the study findings and methodology

Download summary of study findings (PDF)

Download full report (PDF)

Key findings

Funnily enough, the study did not find that policy briefs are a "silver bullet". However, the findings are striking and have implications for how communication experts design policy briefs and how we evaluate research communication. The study found that:

  • The policy brief was more effective in creating 'evidence-accurate' beliefs amongst those with no prior opinion than among those who already held an opinion
  • Messengers matter when it comes to readers' intended actions: the authority (Haddad) effect influenced likelihood of taking certain actions but not on beliefs
  • Gender and self-perceived levels of influence affect people’s intention to act after reading the policy brief : women were less likely to report that they would act differently after reading the brief.

The report offers some recommendations for those creating policy briefs. In particular they recommend including opinion and authority features as they may help to ensure briefs are shared and passed on. They also suggest that the startling difference in response to the brief between men and women in the study should be investigated further.

The authors have acknowledged the methodological limitations of the study, not least that a policy brief is rarely consulted in isolation. However this study is a contribution towards understanding the effectiveness of different approaches to communicating research.

It is important for those involved in trying to strengthen the connections between research and policy to think about the tools they are using and the change that they are trying to effect. As research uptake becomes increasingly important we need to invest more in understanding what works and how we can meaningfully test that.

This study is a contribution to that important debate, let us know what you think.

Comments on this study:
Is there a "Haddad" effect? Results from a randomised controlled trial Lawrence Haddad
Should think tanks write policy briefs? What an RCT can tell us Jeff Knezovitch 
Summary of e-discussion on policy briefs and information needs of decision-makers Yaso Kunaratnam on KBF