Making your research accessible

The use and abuse of research evidence

By 2 April 2013

I’ve been thinking about evidence a great deal recently, and more specifically how can evidence be used to appropriately ‘inform’ decision making or policy?

DFID recently put out a call (now closed) on Building Capacity to use Research Evidence (BCURE) in which they asked for “a range of innovative programmes that aim to build capacity of decision-makers in low and middle income countries to use research evidence and rigorous data to inform their decision-making”. It will be interesting to see what the outcome of this call is, what types of programmes DFID choose to go with, and what ‘impact’ these programmes ultimately have.

There is one huge obstacle flying in the face of this focus on evidence informed policy making (EIPM) and that’s the fact we live in a socially constructed world, where politics, culture and power shapes peoples behaviour and norms. Change in these areas is notoriously difficult and means interventions aiming to facilitate EIPM face a series of ‘wicked’ challenges.

We’ve heard how DFID and the UK government is now highly committed to the use of evidence in framing decisions, although we have not actually seen something resembling a strategy for evidence use, guidelines on how evidence is to be used and where it should come from etc (This does not mean it doesn’t exist, but I have not come across it.). In fact, “There is a shortage of evidence on policy makers’ actual capacity to use research evidence and there is even less evidence on effective strategies to build policy makers’ capacity”

I don’t doubt that DFID are thinking about evidence in a far more robust way, but it would be interesting to know how DFID decide what evidence to use and how they validate this evidence. In other words, what are their own processes and systems for its use? I know DFID use “evidence brokers”, but there is little about their role in the public domain. What’s more we don’t know how effective this approach is, and whether DFID have ever reviewed it. DFID is certainly bringing a new approach to evidence, but is it the right one? What platforms and opportunities do DFID publicly give to the wider policy community to feed into and debate their policies?[1]

The notion of consultation, so popular with the previous UK government, seems to have been lost on the current one. I’m sure DFID have good intentions, but they seem guilty of agenda setting from visibly weak foundations, and not giving enough focus to what key actors working accross policy communities in the global south have to say on the issue. Next time we have a call like BCURE, what about a public consultation? Afterall, are DFID really sure that they themselves are following the kinds of processes that will deliver more effective outcomes. Ironically, we are still yet to see the evidence.

This need for a reflective approach to EIPM is especially evident when addressing policy networks in Africa, which are often informal, thus making their needs highly context specific.

In my mind, EIPM is a classic governance problem and its potential solutions are constantly truncated by the culture and behaviour attached to those systems that underpin the policy process. In framing EIPM as a governance problem I’m talking about better horizontal decision making processes, that take into account a whole host of different actors across policy networks. The tools and processes for building a truly horizontal system can be time consuming, costly to manage and difficult to convince the general public of their worth – another hurdle for DFID.

I was involved in a project in my past life that looked at the use of citizens juries to improve the decision making process in rural communities – a mini project with a small amount of funding (about 20k) conducted by the University of Exeter. This project featured on the front page of the Daily Telegraph and was exhorted as a massive waste of public funds despite its potential as a new more democratic approach to decision making. This was all quite absurd given the relatively small amount of funding it received, but is a useful anecdote to back up my initial point that EIPM faces a number of wicked problems and long term success will require significant attitudinal change on a number of different levels.

DFID may well be reluctant to tell us how they themselves operationalise EIPM, partly because a system that fully integrates evidence into the decision making process is a long way off. Can any political organisation really claim to be good at this? What system should we be holding up to show how others how they should approach it? I think I’m right in saying there is not one. Some may try and lay claim to this, but I think on closer inspection their claims might prove hollow (but I would love to be proved wrong on this).

Why? You might ask. First, EIPM is still a relatively new approach and no one has had time to get the systems and structures right.  Second, there is no system strong enough to overcome socially embedded culture and power dynamics at the heart of our everyday world.  Third, cultural, attitudinal and behavioural change is required in every corner of society in order to see the full horizontal integration of EIPM, and based on current trends society is not ready for this. Finally, until achieving EIPM is framed as a ‘governance’ problem (with its multiple and complex facets) any future intervention will simply be floating around the edges of this wicked issue.

On the flip side, there is great potential in EIPM and a great deal of learning that needs to take place, but is the political and economic climate right for a sustained campaign to transform the culture of governance and decision making around the world or is the pursuit of EIPM an unattainable ideal that will ultimately fail? It will be at least 10 years before we are any closer to that answer, but I fear the writing is on the wall.

[1] R2A has a consultation facility that has sadly never been used, we could have held the discussion right here!

*I was torn between images for this post and thought this image was equally fun and somewhat controversial. Enjoy!