Thursday, 3 October 2013

Research to Action – A different slant on capabilities

by Elise Wach, Monitoring, Evaluation & Learning Advisor

At the Evidence and Power in Development Policy event at LSE a few weeks back, we were asked to write on index cards our unanswered questions related to the event (and to save our other non-event unanswered questions for another occasion).  I walked away with a few unanswered questions and issues to ponder, which I share here.

The event began, as to be expected, with an overview of the long-standing debates around the ‘linkages’ between ‘researchers’ and ‘policy makers’.  One of the main questions of the event was, ‘when researchers and policy makers are more closely linked, can researchers really challenge the normative ideas of policies?’  This idea of challenging normative ideas was thus resonating in the back of my head as Chris Whitty (Director of Research and Evidence Division at DFID) spoke about some of the realities of policy makers.  

Echoing the calls of many policy actors, he stated that research needs to be packaged for ‘instantaneous use’ and that researchers need to avoid trying to make their studies ‘seem more complicated than they are.’  ‘Policy makers’ (and I use quotes here to indicate that the term ‘policy maker’ can be quite misleading) want high level, tangible messages that they can use to make decisions about the way that something happens.

While I do agree that researchers could stand to improve their ability to communicate their ideas and research to others (which may require development of both social skills (!) and communications in some cases) I also think that there are a few larger systemic issues here that are normally assumed to be unchangeable.

We focus a lot on communication of research and on ensuring that policy makers have access to research and evidence, but should we also focus on the capabilities of policy makers to engage in research?  

To me, the capabilities of policy makers to meaningfully engage with research would include: the time that they have to do so, the ability to bridge the research and policy domains, and the capability to make sense of multiple sources of information and evidence (and here we are talking about evidence with a small ‘e’).

Time availability.  
With the reduction in staff numbers at donor agencies such as DFID, are these types of decision makers less able to engage with evidence in a meaningful way?   What information gets left out in a two page policy brief or in a 30 minute presentation?   Researchers don’t always make things ‘more complicated’ than they are.  Often times the issues are very complicated…or even complex!  For complex issues such as conflict mitigation or even food security, simple headlines are not enough. 

Bridging the divides.  
We talk a lot about how researchers need to be able to use less jargon and tailor their language and messaging to the needs and realities of policy makers.  Again, there is a lot that researchers could (and should) improve upon here.

Source: Ahamer et al 2010
But there are also other ways in which this gap may be bridged. 
People who have had experience in a variety of settings (research, policy, practice, different sectors, etc.) can play a key role in ‘translating’ information from researchers to policy actors and vice versa.  In network theory, such individuals are called ‘bridges’.

Encouraging diversity of career experiences, rather than promoting single track, ‘focused’ careers (even if it is just a short stint away from their long-term job) could help to improve the linkages between research, policy and practice.  Increased empathy may also help here (see this fun RSA animate on empathy and ‘outrospection’).

Perceiving and managing complexity.  
Many have argued that the type of thinking that has resulted in the types of problems that we have today (e.g. disparity, climate change, undernutrition, crime, etc.) is likely not well-suited to adequately solving them.

Dialectical thinking, identifying and examining our assumptions and perspectives and recognizing complexity might be able to help ensure that solutions to complex problems are valid in the long-term and beyond the scope of the specific problems which they seek to address.  

In some Adult Development theories, increasing skills or knowledge in a specific area is considered to be growing ‘horizontally’.    This is what we normally focus on when we talk about capacity development.  But we can also develop in our capabilities for ‘meaning making’ (vertical growth).  An article by Susanne Cook-Greuter explains this in more detail.

Catalysts of change.
Much work has been done on identifying and developing capabilities in leaders (see Snowden and Boone or Barrett Brown for accessible examples of this).  But it isn’t just the ‘top leaders’ that could benefit from increasing their capabilities in this area.   Civil servants, researchers, programme managers, etc. could also benefit from developing more ‘vertically’.  

One of the ILT’s latest papers is about ‘champions of change’.  In the paper, Sara Wolcott and I offer some musings about the capabilities and attributes of individuals who are able to make sense of and manage information in order to catalyse policy changes, based on a piece of research undertaken as part of the Transform Nutrition research initiative.  

There’s much more to say in this area, and I hope to share more on this topic in future posts.  In the meantime, we welcome your comments and feedback on this post and on the ‘champions’ paper.