Knowing your audience

People matter, not papers: Watching policymakers acquire knowledge in Indonesia

By 17 September 2018

Funders support (non-governmental) think tanks, assuming they will influence government policy by (amongst other things) producing and sharing short, punchy written outputs like policy briefs and blog posts. However, my experience (here, here, here and here) researching how policymakers make decisions in Indonesia challenges these assumptions.

Our results show that when mid-level Indonesian policymakers in both large ‘spending ministries’ and smaller ‘influencing ministries’ are tasked with, say, developing or revising a regulation or law, their first priority is to acquire not research, but statistical data. Seen as objective, policymakers feel data will, for instance, identify current trends, recognise issues that need to be addressed, assign targets, and/or demonstrate impact.

However, the reality is that some policymakers find it difficult to access high-quality data, while others struggle to make sense of the huge volume of data that exists. Data on its own fails to show  the causes of trends and does not point to potential solutions. This is where research can help.

When policymakers sought research, it was to provide context, inform a strategy, or defend or legitimise a decision that had already been made. Specific policy questions are usually generated in an ad hoc manner and are often driven by directives from senior policymakers. Unfortunately,  policymakers are often unwilling to admit to a lack of knowledge and are suspicious of advice that contradicts their own position, so are not open to asking questions.

Most importantly, however, when policymakers did seek out research, rather than commission or read comprehensive research papers, they are more likely to invite experts they already knew to provide advice through social processes (which some policymakers consider as research). These processes usually feature formal and informal meetings or phone conversations, focus group discussions (FGDs), or seminars. For instance, experts have been invited to offer ministers opinions, or to an in-depth FGD to discuss trends in data and draw implications for the work of civil servants.

A preference for acquiring knowledge through social processes is a key feature of Indonesian culture. But it also happens because policymakers find it very difficult to formally commission research. Procedures to procure research from internal research and development units, where they exist, is lengthy and cumbersome. This usually discourages them from making a request at all. In any case, these internal units often lack the capacity to produce high-quality research. Meanwhile, other procedures constrained policymakers from hiring top-end researchers from outside government to undertake research.

When FGDs or seminars are held, policymakers will invite people from their personal, academic alumni, and/or professional networks. Qualifications, knowledge, and experience are important, but for most policymakers trust, developed through at least occasional social interaction, played a major role in deciding who was invited to contribute to policy discussions (resonating with findings from an OTT working paper on think tank credibility).

The invitees are usually academics and scholars from national and local universities (themselves civil servants), but there is significant disparity amongst academics, reflecting the inequality amongst universities. There are some elite universities, mostly public, that have pockets of international excellence that ministries can draw upon, often facilitated by international and donor agencies. Academics in these institutions benefit from studies abroad, international collaborations, and from attending global workshops and conferences. However, the majority of Indonesia’s universities lack a high-quality research and teaching environment. Academics are mostly taken up with teaching, grading, and administrative duties and are not directly remunerated for doing research. This results in poor quality contributions from many academics.

So, what are think tanks and funders to do to influence policy? First, they need to take the time to understand the context they are working in and the relationships and networks that policymakers and shapers are immersed in.

Where social and informal processes are the norm, rather than seeing them as reinforcing patronage, nepotism, and corruption, think tanks and funders might be better off embracing them, and accepting them as a reflection of long-standing friendships and shared social histories. At the same time, this shouldn’t prevent longer term work that aims to encourage a diversity of stakeholders to engage with policy processes. The Knowledge Sector Initiative is trying to do that by working to improve the regulatory environment that prohibits policymakers from commissioning non-governmental agencies to do high-quality research.

If think tanks are working in a context where academics have traditionally played a prominent role in policy circles, they may want to work jointly with academics on research projects, especially those with connections to policymakers. And with knowledge often transmitted verbally in meetings (rather than through papers), think tanks (and academics) may also want to expand their communications work to include oral testimonies, stories, and short messaging in addition to written products.

Funders, on the other hand, may want to consider how to support improvements in the quality of traditional forms of statistical data (with some already doing so). And finally, taking a more systemic approach to capacity strengthening, they may want to explore how they can help to improve the research environment for academics so they are better informed in their conversations with policymakers.

This post is based on a blog originally published on the OTT website.

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