Monday, 10 December 2012

Forget asking if policymakers understand evidence – do we understand policy?

By Emilie Wilson

I am setting aside my role as editor for this blog for a minute to share some reflections on a recent workshop I attended. It was called Beyond Communication: exploring approaches to research uptake; and was organised by the UK Collaborative on Development Sciences (UKCDS) and UK Department for International Development (DFID).

Is “Research uptake” more jargon, or a different way of understanding communication? 

The first time I came across the expression “research uptake” was in 2010, when the new UK coalition government was voted in, and a marketing and communication “freeze” across all UK departments was implemented.

I was new to my Communications job at the time, and would have been inclined to agree with my colleague Jeff Knezovich’s observation that “The term was specifically designed to obfuscate its purpose—ironic, given that the whole point was to help clarify and communicate research findings. This obfuscation was a result of a change of government in the UK, and a “communications” witch-hunt from the Conservative-led coalition, branding such activities as “wasteful Labour spending” in a time of austerity”

However, a quick Google search reveals that “research uptake” was around pre-2010 and a number of different sectors have used the term when grappling with the issue ‘how on earth do you get people to do something with the research?’.  In health, for example in this paper “Fostering implementation of health services research findings into practice: a consolidated framework for advancing implementation science"; or in political economy, for example The Politics of Trade (these examples were thrown up by the ‘quick Google search’ so I’m not holding them up as exemplary merely indicative).

At the workshop, Kirsty Newman – Research Uptake Manager at DFID (and contributor to this blog) – described Research Uptake as “allowing us to take a holistic view” of this issue – here is a reproduction of the sketch I drew in my note-book to capture her description:

The assumption being that previously communicating research findings had focussed on ‘dissemination’ or ‘diffusion’ – i.e. supply; and that research uptake was shifting the focus to ‘demand’ – either ‘what do they want’ or ‘can we persuade them to want what we have’ Or more eloquently described by Jeff as “stimulating an enabling environment among end users of research to commission and find appropriate information to support their own policy processes”. Most people who work in marketing and communications will already be pretty familiar with the focus on stimulating demand, and I’m sure would be only too pleased share their wealth of research on this area!

Evidence-based policy – one way to reduce poverty 

It seems we are still living in an Age of Reason (at least in the northern hemisphere), believing strongly that research validated by expert peers and based on tried and tested methodological approaches has something to offer to people in power. The offer is that research can demonstrate what works or doesn’t work, and it is not supposed to be tainted by money, politics or tribal affiliation – it’s a global public good, a credible source of authority. The assumption is that decisions based on this objective knowledge source will be of the greatest possible benefit, and not privilege a minority or prop up a flawed system.

So, should the ‘demand’ box in my diagram be renamed “creating demand” – i.e. the process is still supply-driven. Evidence (derived from research) – like vitamins, for example – is good for you (and your policymaking) and we need to develop increasingly sophisticated ways for people to engage with it. But do we know much about the demand other than through dialogue which merely engages our ‘end users’ with our research products and processes? Evidence literacy has been used as a term to describe the ability of policymakers and practitioners to understand and apply research evidence, but have we stopped to ask ourselves about our own literacy?

The Kirsty Newman policymaking quiz (PowerPoint)

Kirsty Newman did just that during the workshop, when she put the shoe on the other foot, and asked those present at the workshop some simple questions mostly about the UK policy environment. Such as – what are the three principle functions of the UK parliament? How would you define a “civil servant”? (this was a multiple choice one). I’m ashamed to say that, even with a degree which includes a minor in politics, I only got 4/7 questions correct. And most people present scored less! 

It may have been that people in the room would have been more familiar with other policy environments (and not specifically the UK's), but Kirsty's quiz did well to make the point: do you know the language of the people you are trying to communicate with?

Which is why I think we should consider sticking with the term “communication”, describing a two-way process (from the Latin verb to share) rather than “uptake”, implying a one-way process.

Emilie Wilson is Communications Officer at the Institute of Development Studies, and editor of the Impact and Learning blog.