Making your research accessible

Reality comes first: Planning for policy influence

By 20/04/2011

Good quality research can easily get overlooked by policymakers, even after receiving widespread acclaim. The path to influencing policy is often shrouded in mystery and confusion. Describing policy-making as a process does not capture the complex reality of getting research into use. If you are serious about your research having an impact on policy, you need to start with a plan!

The Context, Evidence, Links (CEL) framework developed by Emma Crewe (SOAS) and John Young (ODI) outlines a useful process for planning policy influence. This planning tool, as the name implies, encourages us to unpack policy influence by focusing on the context in which it is made, the nature and quality of the evidence, the linkages we need to make in order to influence policy, and the impact the external environment can have on the policy process and the likelihood we can influence it.

This is not the only method that can be used for planning policy influence, there are numerous others. Nevertheless, this method does provide a useful focus on this kind of planning. What ought to be made clear is that planning is important, but not easy. Policy-making networks are complex and it’s very hard to fully comprehend how they operate. Furthermore, ‘Policy makers’ are an elusive bunch. More often than not, they are trying to influence a senior figure further along the chain, and often do not (when asked) see themselves as ‘policy-makers’*.

This post attempts to provide a way forward for those organisations and researchers with few resources and little understanding of planning for policy influence.


Context is king

The CEL framework’s focus on context is seen as a means to unpack the political and institutional structures at the heart of the policymaking process. These are often shaped by the interests of key policy makers, political ideologies; and organisational pressures and practices – all of which can lead to the adaptation, or distortion of research when put into practice.

There are a series of context related question that could be asked, such as: Who are the key policy actors? Is there a demand for research and new ideas? Who shapes the inputs and outputs of policies? So on and so forth**.

The context of political and institutional structures is a difficult thing to unpack, and often can change from one ministry and department to the next. To truly get to the bottom of it is difficult.

Our tip: if you are short on time and resources, why not simply talk to someone ‘in the know’, rather than no one at all.

Evidence is at the heart of the matter

The nature of the evidence you present can, and to a large extent should (all things being equal), influence whether or not your research influences policy. The CEL framework encourages researchers to be prepared! Research is always likely to come under scrutiny, and however robust you think it is there is always likely to be a need to justify the way your evidence was gathered, and defend the accuracy of your findings. Central to this is also the ability to communicate your research in a clear and concise way.

The reality for researchers aiming to influence policy is that we live in a socially constructed world. As such, policy makers often work within the limits of dominant narratives. If your research does not support these prevailing narratives or theories, the challenge becomes much greater. You may think your research can reach out above these and change the way policy makers see different issues. However, from a realist’s perspective you might be better served trying to take small steps to break these narratives down. Be clever and perhaps try presenting your research in a way that does not fly in the face of what has gone before it.

Ultimately, you need to think about your evidence, question how good it is, and the ‘world view’ it supports. Only then can you begin to unpack whether or not it will appeal to policy makers.

Our tip: be pragmatic, if policymakers are not ready for your evidence, other stakeholders might be.

Without links there is no chain

It’s unlikely that you will always (if ever) have direct access to high-level policymakers. Nonetheless, this does not mean they are unreachable. We live in a ‘networked’ world, with people, organisations and places interconnected in numerous ways. If you don’t have direct access to policy makers, other actors undoubtedly do, or at least know who does.

The CEL framework understands that understanding your links and those that exist between key stakeholders can have an important role in influencing policy. Who are the key stakeholders? What links and networks exist between them? Whose evidence and research do they communicate? How can I reach them?** These are just a few of the questions you need to ask when planning to share your research, and are trying to foster effective relationships.

Building relationships and networks is a time consuming prospect, and there is every chance you would be reluctant to design a plan that outlines lots of days to do this, unless there is a budget to do so.

Our tip: be strategic and ask yourself: ‘Who do I already know who can help me?’ Having a good working relationship with three key allies, is better than knowing more people, less well.

External forces shape the policy agenda

The CEL framework outlines that external forces and donors actions on research-policy interactions play a role in shaping the policy process, and it is important to understand the implications of this.

Incentives, such as the poverty reduction strategy paper (PRSP) process and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), can have a significant impact on the demand for research. War, natural disasters, the spread of disease, and social and political unrest can also provide the impetus for new policy and research.

Southern based researchers often face different challenges. For instance, their research is often funded by international donors, which raises a range of issues around ownership, and the priorities that are attached to it. In such cases, evidence is often produced to fit with prominent external narratives, rather than those at the local level. This means that the networks and actors that are important are often different in nature.

Prominent narratives, and the influence of macro-political forces, are important elements here. But narratives and political priorities do change depending on what region of the world you are based, and the policy level you hope your research will influence.

Our tip: The external forces that are relevant to you and your research are what are important.

Planning is important, but doing is king

This is a brief discussion based around just one of the very useful planning tools available to help you plan for policy influence. The key message here is to plan, because planning will make you more effective. Plan for your budget and available resources, and don’t be put off by the extra work involved. Framing these issues helps us think more clearly about how our daily experiences, our relationships with other actors, and the nature of our research can help feed into influencing policy, and make the rather abstract and broad notion of policy influence seem far more tangible.

*Crewe, E and Young, J (2002), Bridging Research and Policy: Context, Evidence and Links; ODI working paper 173

**Start, D and Hovland, I (2004), Tools for Policy Impact: A Handbook for Researchers, ODI