Knowing your audience

Trouble in paradise? The shaky relationship between evidence and policy

By and 15 September 2017

It might feel like we are living in strange times. One where rhetoric and storytelling are often used by our political leaders in place of ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’. But storytelling is by no means a new phenomenon when it comes to sharing information. In fact, the ‘fable’ is the original and the most effective form of communicating, and has been since our ancestors drew pictures on their cave walls. So, why do we consistently struggle to shape and inform policy narratives with evidence and how can we change that?

As researchers, policymakers, and practitioners come together this week in South Africa at the Global Evidence Summit, this is a question that should be at the forefront of their minds. Think about this: Why is it that we turn to those we trust when it comes to personal matters, but not for policy matters? After all the former impacts one life and the latter hundreds if not thousands ­– a situation for which ‘trusted’ input is required.

When it comes to evidence-informed decision-making (EIDM), discussions and frameworks have often focused on the transactional nature of the relationship rather than the social aspect, which ‘The Social Realities of Knowledge for Development’ and other studies attempt to counter. For example, in an attempt to strengthen community-based child protection mechanisms in Sierra-Leone, UNICEF, Columbia University, and Save the Children collaborated intensely with the local community and decisionmakers to foster a sense of collective ownership on the research, process, and approach. Despite being halted by the Ebola crisis, this considered and inclusive approach helped shape a new Child and Family Welfare Policy that featured the role of families and communities rather than formal structures.

If we begin to consider trusted relationships an investment, what are the anticipated returns on that investment and what are the risks? In The Neuroscience of Trust, Paul Zak claims that such investment result in increased loyalty. Well isn’t this what we as researchers and communicators (those in the middle) are implicitly (and selfishly) looking for: decisionmakers who come to us first for advice or information; who use our research in their deliberations; who recommend us as expert witnesses?

If this is the case, then it would be prudent to consider the fragility of these relationships given that it takes only one instance of misused data, unfortunate press, distorted social media, or conflict between experts that can fracture that trust and jeopardise the influence one has on policy decisionmaking. Take for instance the hyperbole on the links between autism and MMR vaccine when in fact the research was declared illegitimate. The damage was done: science (and scientists) came into question, there was fuel for the anti-vaccine campaigns, an upsurge of measles globally, and fines for parents refusing to vaccinate their children.

In addition to the fragility of relationships, we would be remiss not to acknowledge the dangers of dependency in such relationships. While key individuals can serve as intermediaries or influential collaborators, i.e. a minister, their departure or absence can hinder or derail important discussions and relationships. For example, in Knowledge, Policy and Power in International Development: A Practical Guide, the authors demonstrate how a change in the presidency of Iran led to the removal of key personnel from the government, unrestrained exercise of power, and a shift in priorities which unraveled the critical relationship that researchers from the Iran Institute for Research Planning and Development had forged with the government planning team. Instances such as these have led Heather Lanthorn to ask if we need a new kind of policy champion?

Building a network of diverse and relevant connections can help to mitigate the risk and impact of any individual loss, perhaps one like Health Systems Global (HSG), a membership organisation which seeks to bring together in one room (online or in person) academia, policymakers, practitioners and many others to dissect the nuances and peculiarities around health systems. The ‘network’ approach can in many ways contribute to creating a critical mass for driving desired decisions.

Another ‘vaccine’ against dependency, argues Benjamin Uzochukwu, could be the establishment of mentorship programmes such as those in Nigeria, to establish and maintain relationships throughout and beyond an organisation.

All these examples serve to show that ‘trust’ is the glue that bonds a productive and meaningful ‘relationship’. They impress that without investing in building, nurturing, and sustaining trusted relationships between researchers and decisionmakers, EIDM will likely have to take a risk on chance and good will

So that raises the question – how do we ensure that relationships between researchers and decisionmakers are responsive enough to existing needs but resilient enough to survive critical junctures? It would seem that irrespective of sector or discipline, a diverse network can go a long way in establishing a more ‘intact, enduring marriage’ between research(ers) and policy(makers).

For the socially disinclined, unfortunately chemical induction of trust has been debunked, else we could perhaps have considered ways of boosting oxytocin levels so as to reduce anxiety and foster trust between two parties! But in the absence of that, we’ll just have to settle for good old-fashioned time and energy.

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