Making your research accessible

Lesson learning on engaging with policy actors through Impact Evaluations

By 6 March 2014

Here in waterlogged Cornwall my lovely new colleagues @commsconsultltd are now into the final year of work on the 3-year 3ie Policy Influence Monitoring (PIM) project they’ve been working on, where their focus has recently shifted to some of the project’s evaluation deliverables; most notably to the ‘Stories of Change’.  These stories aim to pull out some of the lessons learned from the Impact Evaluations (IEs) for application by future such studies. Happily, this shift has coincided with the arrival of the (brilliant!) newest member of the CommsConsult team: me!

As a development practitioner coming to the evidence-informed policy world for the first time, having the opportunity to sit down and wrestle with some of the fundamental questions and issues that face both the policy and practitioner world in development (how do we ensure that what we are doing will make a (positive) difference?) has been, already, hugely interesting, thought-provoking and insightful.

Having listened to various researchers describe the policy-related challenges they face whilst conducting their impact evaluations- and consequently having debated such issues  in the wider development policy world with my old hat, policy-seasoned colleagues; I grant that I’m still relatively fresh-faced to the research policy and uptake field but am certainly now better equipped to offer my own particular perspective and contribution here (albeit through the special lens of someone who has, I admit, when faced with seemingly failing guiding policies in the field, previously wondered about the relevance of the work that researchers do and who hence is very interested in helping to bridge the elusive gap between research and policy uptake).

Don’t get me wrong; the 3ie monitoring project is enormously challenging and not one that lends itself easily to clear ‘lessons-learned exercises’. As my colleagues Nyasha  and Farai shared previously, just trying to map the IEs in the first two years of this 3ie project was more complex than anticipated. And so, of course at this point, trying to draw generic learning points from such a diverse set of studies (which is never easy anyway) is leading to much lively discussion…and often many more questions than answers.

However during the last year CommsConsult has also conducted in-depth interviews with different 3ie study teams allowing for a deeper insight into some of the IEs and into the specific policy-related activities and challenges that they’ve been grappling with…

So now, as we’ve collectively turned our full attention and brain power to investigating and drafting specific stories of change, some initial patterns and common challenges, and thus lessons-learned, have begun to jump out at me. Namely (to share just four of them here):

  1. The importance of being strategic in identifying and choosing targets for policy influence activities. Whether that’s selecting people who are ‘within reach’ (geographically or politically); people who speak the same ‘language’; or people who you know are likely to contest the research findings and so who need to be engaged earlier (or even more strategically!). In choosing policy influencing targets, don’t forget also to try to break the boundaries of the research/academic bubble in order to grow your audience!
  2. That the responsibility for stakeholder engagement seems to fall to in-country team members who, although geographically closer, also tend to take on the administrative and more hands on ‘burden’ of the project thus leading both to capacity constraints and sometimes also to a restricted stakeholder engagement strategy. The multitude of layers, types and possible locations for stakeholder outreach in one country begs the question: does that person have the capacity, time and budget to effectively engage targeted stakeholders as well as…? And crucially, do they have the skills to do so? Having some specific communications capacity within the research team is very helpful. If your team doesn’t have any, consider investing in it; whether through training or the identification and resourcing of a new team member.
  3. The importance of engaging with targeted stakeholders early on in the IE. Just because you don’t have all the results yet doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to discuss with the target audience. Absolutely not! Relationship building is often key to building demand and receptivity to (and ultimately uptake of) the study and its findings. Engaging with actors early and building relationships allows you to inform them that the study is going on, to be flexible to their interests and frameworks, to share any learning that falls out as the study goes along and to alert them to the timeline for expected results.
  4. It appears that in many contexts RCTs are not widely understood. So there may also be a need (and at the same time another opportunity) to engage with stakeholders (early) to explain and communicate the benefits of this particular research approach…which in turn will also (and according to some of the 3ie PIM project’s grantees has) increase demand for RCTs and for the specific IE findings.

Essentially, it all points to the fact that there is a very real need both to be strategic and to allocate sufficient budget, time and capacity for policy-related activities.

As a former development practitioner myself I very well understand that ‘policy-related activities’ can be seen as an ‘add-on’ or a luxury, time-permitting, etc etc. But inevitably time doesn’t permit.  So this approach is of course doomed from the start. There is nothing earth-shattering in this realisation so far. But there doesn’t need to be. Everyone knows that ‘you get out what you put in’, in whatever realm you turn your attention to. And the policy sphere is no different. What it demands is commitment (professional, budget, time) and realistic expectations of the resources available (time, budget, team skills and capacity) and of desired outcomes.

Ultimately there needs to be a commitment to engage in policy at all levels. The IE team need to have agreement and permission to formally build in policy-related activities to their workplan (and so for specific time and budget allocation) from their donor as well as from each of their team members. In this way, policy-related activities become a deliverable rather that a luxury. (You become accountable for it.)

Fortunately, 3ie is one of these such donors for any researcher wanting to be held accountable that their research does not just end up on a dusty shelf (or whatever is the equivalent in today’s world?!).

I guess the ultimate question for today’s researchers is – why exactly am I conducting this research?

These are some of the issues and questions that Megan, CommsConsult Director, is going to be dealing with at the Doha Evidence Symposium on Youth Labour later this week where in fact, one of 3ie’s (and PIM’s) grantees, Neil Rankin, will be presenting some of the findings from his impact evaluation carried out in South Africa. Follow #YouthEmploy on Twitter for updates!

This post was first published on the CommsConsult Ltd. website.