How to gain the attention of policy and decision makers in order to share your research
In the modern world people seem to be losing faith in democracy, yet democracy is viewed as “the best of many imperfect options” for our society. This may be because politicians are viewed as rent-seekers, putting their own interests before the priorities of their voters. As a consequence, when something positive happens in terms of implementing policy recommendations, people tend to be skeptics, trying to imagine the secret benefits obtained by the politician.
Most of the time, researchers not only want to be recognized for the work they do, they also want policy recommendations to be implemented in order to guarantee better standards of living, more efficiency in the use of public funds, better inclusion of certain groups of people, or to achieve more development and less inequality in society. All these are legitimate objectives that should not provoke resistance from policymakers. Nevertheless, it is necessary to understand how politics works and how decisions in the political arena are made.
An example from Guatemala: Cash Transfers Program
To illustrate this point, I will present a specific example drawn from the Guatemalan public sphere during the last five years. This example refers to the institutionalization of social programs intended to increase development levels among the poorest households in the country. In 2008, the then-recently elected government decided to follow the Latin American model of introducing conditional cash transfers (CCTs) programs as a solution for the very high poverty conditions of many of those living in the rural areas of the country. The purpose of such initiatives was not only to raise the income of families , but to promote the responsibility of parents to send children to school and to encourage families to frequently visit health centers and posts (for both diagnosis and treatment, such as vaccination, prenatal controls and provision of micronutrients and vitamins for mothers and children).
This very well intended program generated a lot of opinion and debate around its implementation and efectiveness. In addition to a technical analysis of the amount of the resources received by each family and the effectiveness on both educational and health objectives, one of our main interests was to support the institutional framework for the implementation of this initiative in Guatemala. This framework work was meant as a symbol of the commitment by the government to guarantee transparency in the administration of the CCTs program.
However, when well intended programs are used for political objectives, researchers’ attention should not exclusively be focused on the research. Given this consideration, we convened a policy dialogue around the implementation of our recommendations.
The first action we took was to try and generate public interest around the topic we wanted to address. We used the media to spread the results of our analysis, and encouraged other think tanks to reflect upon the importance of institutionalizing social programs. Additionally, our strategy focused on those areas that could be improved without harming the beneficiaries that were already being helped by the program.
Policy windows take different forms
Influence rarely takes a linear pathway and even though the government party did not pay a lot of attention to our recommendations, the social consensus around the importance of institutionalization spread to the other political parties that aspired to win the elections in 2011. This gave us the opportunity to introduce our proposal into the public discussion amongst candidates and helped us generate a commitment from all parties to institutionalize the CCTs program once they were elected.Our proposal was accepted by the political leaders because we gave them a win-win opportunity, attending to social demands while also being viewed as ‘doing the right thing’.
We were able to move attention on social issues to a specific agenda topic – something that is not always easy to do. However, when the topic is relevant to the priorities of the citizens, agenda setting clearly becomes feasible.
Learning from our experiences
My main recommendation to other think tanks is to make alliances with other groups that have the same objective. One tree that falls makes a lot of noise, but one forest growing makes an enormous change. It is not about the cleverness of the recommendations, the cost-benefits ratios or the relevance of the proposal to the national interest, the goal is to make changes that will really help your society. For that, you will need patience, recognizing that a process needs time to getgoing. Nevertheless, once you generate momentum in the right direction, it will be easier to convince politicians about what to do.
Again, do not expect the results in the short term, but keep your efforts focused on what you want to happen. Maybe not all the battles will be won, but you should be sure that it is possible to win the war. Knowing your opponent is the first step to take, and getting the support of others is crucial. It´s very useful when you understand this, because it helps to be more prepared before you initiate a transforming process in your country.
If you would like find out more about how the ‘Strengthening Institutions to Improve Public Expenditure Accountability’ project developed policy options and created a tailored approach to research communication visit the ‘Strengthening Institutions’ mini-site. You can also stay up to date via RSS.