In the UK, there is a sophisticated research department within Whitehall which is on hand to inform British policy making. Not all governments have this facility at their beck and call.
At a recent workshop hosted by the Australian aid programme AusAid and the UK Collaborative on Development Sciences UKCDS, more than 80 participants from around the world heard about different models of evidence-based policymaking.
In India, around half of the government’s legislators look to a private organisation called PRS Legislative Research based in New Delhi, to fill this gap. The organisation works with MPs to do impartial, background research on all topics in order to improve the quality of decisions on specific bills. Dr Madhavan, Head of Research at PRS, presented one of two keynote speeches to the opening day of the workshop. He described the many challenges of responding to MPs’ needs. “Legislators have to make decisions very quickly”, he said. “They are inundated with information from different interest groups and many of them are generalists having to deal with specialist areas of work. So they need us to explain complexity to them in simple language that is easily understood.”
The most important factor in the first few years for the organisation was building up trust with the policymakers. They did this in three ways: first by presenting credible, non-partisan research that met an expressed need; second by presenting complex information in ways that is legible and readable in its length and simplicity; and third by responding to the sometimes alarmingly short deadlines which were imposed.
“We have some simple rules of thumb for presenting the evidence”, says Dr Madhavan. “Our Communication Briefs are never longer than six pages; we include graphs with written explanations because some people look at the graphs while others look at the words; and we use a set of ‘friends’ who are used as guinea pigs to make sure that the technical information is written in a way that can be understood by an intelligent layman. We always cite references; have a brief summary on the front page, and never make any recommendations.” It is a formula which has served them well.
Research informing policy in Uganda is done differently. Peter Acuch works with the Parliament of Uganda to advise the MPS on issues that relate to science and technology and physical infrastructure. He is one of around 20 professionals including lawyers and economists who form part of the Library Research Department.
“We face many challenges in supporting the MPs. Some of them come from different educational backgrounds so we need to find ways of creatively presenting this information in ways that they can understand. That’s never easy. They are torn between their constituencies and their roles as legislators, and so you need to find ways of being concise and precise in ways that meet their needs.”
Ordinary researchers have a number of opportunities to both access and inform Ugandan policymakers, he suggests. Calls are made through the media for researchers to meet MPs at various committees on a whole range of issues, and they are free to submit memos and share their points of view with the legislators.
Currently on a Commonwealth Professional Fellowship at the Commonwealth Office of Science and Technology, he is learning about the ways in which research informs both the British House of Commons and House of Lords.