Communicating effectively is a key to increase the impact of research. This is why GDNet dedicates its Research Communications Capacity Building Programme to help researchers building their capacities in communicating their research effectively with their target audience.
Given that policymakers are the main target audience of researchers, an entire building block of the most recent GDNet Capacity Building Workshop – entitled “GDNet-AERC Policy Brief Training Workshop” and held in Nairobi on December 1-2, 2011 – was dedicated to hold a policy panel of three policymakers.
These guest speakers were asked to address the researchers about the practical challenges they face when trying to access and use research evidence for decision-making, the current policy opportunities for research on ICTs and economic development to both inform and influence public policy, examples where research has successfully engaged and influenced policy, key things that researchers should do and should not do to maximize research uptake, and how effective are policy briefs in communicating research to policy audiences.
Following an overview of the role of the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) in initiating sustainable social and economic development policies in Kenya and to what extent the Council is involved in the policy formulation process, Mr. Julius M. Muia – Secretary at NESC – provided an outline of “Vision 2030”, which is about transforming Kenya into a newly industrializing, middle-income country providing high quality of life to all its citizens by 2030; and the role of ICT in economic development in Kenya.
As the main challenges policymakers face while accessing and using research evidence in decision-making, Mr. Muia stated the following: information explosion/overload on the internet; weak linkages with research organisations – there are 52 think tanks in Kenya; determining the credibility of a given research organisation & the real motive behind the research & findings (Profession? Association?); some research organisations prefer to engage in radical (warlike) advocacy through the media instead of positive dialogue; customising research findings to local context.
To maximise their research uptake, researchers should:
- Address topical issues – review ministries’ strategic plans and have 20% applied research component (Client Centric)
- Create strategic alliance/partnerships (formal-informal) with relevant ministries (policymakers/implementers) – identify key persons
- Identify policy gaps regarding emerging strategic issues & offer constructive criticism & policy options e.g. climate change, carbon credits, global financial crisis, unemployment
- Socialization and commercialization of research – should benefit society (ppp – publish, patent and prosper)
And should not
- use the media to criticize government policies without offering plausible solutions
- offer biased policy options based on opinions & sectoral views rather than properly supported research evidence
- offer non-contextual (non-localised) policy options
Eric Aligula, Programme Coordinator at Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA), explained how KIPPRA engage with the Government as a Think Tank and a Government Institute that works under the Ministry of Planning. Mr. Aligula highlighted the importance of building the credibility, as a critical challenge, not only with the Government but also with fellow researchers. Mr. Aligula advised the participants to focus on a single issue when communicating with researchers, which should be addressing what the researcher think should be the policymakers needs. According to him, researchers should be clear about policy needs and information gaps, determine how they are going to fill in the gap, develop a broad communication strategy when communicating their research. He added: “We would like to see more researchers publishing articles on papers”.
When addressing the practical challenges for policymakers in using research evidence for decision making, Henry Rotich, Deputy Director – Economic Affairs Department, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister & Ministry of Finance, highlighted the importance of the political reality, which lies in the fact that the government is committed to a policy on ideological grounds and research findings are secondary for policymakers. “Policy is decided without research (…) Research will follow policy to provide evidence for or against policy implementation”, he added. He clearly stated that researchers’ findings are uncertain “because researchers disagree on findings, policymakers are reluctant to take a position on the issue”.
On the practical challenges, Mr. Rotich stressed on the importance of the timing for policy makers. “During a crisis, there is little time to gather evidence, analyze and obtain solutions to a problem. There is tendency to act under pressure and therefore unless research is tailored to be fast and targeted to the issue at hand policy formulation will move on”.
On the challenge in communicating research to policymakers, Mr. Rotich listed the following: communication of research is often opaque and unclear; research is not presented in accessible form for non-experts; research do not provide policy conclusion with recommended options; researchers often lack knowledge of the most pressing policy questions that they would need to make their research more relevant; policy makers are not always informed about ongoing research.
As an example of a piece of research that successfully influenced policy, Mr. Rotich cited the one on investing in people and socio-economic development/poverty reduction, which influenced policy on increased funding to health and education sectors. The reasons for success lied in the political, donor and NGOs supports, less controversial findings and conclusive evidence, presentation of success stories, short, simple and direct key messages (e.g. “Education is the key to success”; “Educate a girl, support the family or reduce poverty”; “smoking kills/harmful to your heath”).
According to Mr. Rotich, current policy briefs are not quite effective because sometimes they are too technical, and even if they are not the design of the message is poor, or they are not relevant to the current issues at hand to generate policymaker’s interest, or they simply lack clarity in policy conclusions with recommended options.
How to maximize the research uptake
In order to maximize their research uptake, Mr. Rotich advised the participating researchers to:
- Understand the macro political context (get to know policymakers, identify friends and work with them, prepare for policy opportunities/windows)
- Ensure their evidence is relevant and practically useful (establish credibility , build reputation, provide practical solutions by focusing on action-research, present clear options and pilot projects to generate legitimacy, use familiar narratives not technical jargons—good communication a must)
- Establish links with key stakeholders and networking (get to know the others by building partnerships, work through existing networks and develop new policy networks plus use informal contacts, invite policymakers to conferences or presentations of research, and involve policy-makers in the research at an early stage)
Possible ways to make a policy brief effective
- Keep it brief and concise, non-technical and straight to the point
- Present it in an appealing manner (often graphically thus readily and easily understood)
- Use simpler language (be brief and focus on the application rather than the theoretical background)
- Well structured: directly address the needs of the policymaker, limit background and get straight to summary of your recommendations
- Content: focus on unknowns and limit what is already know, specify assumptions if necessary, let the policymaker appreciate reading the policy brief
- Give a clear summary of key policy issues & recommended actionable policy options
- Produce it soon after the research thus not obsolete
- Point out the weakness of the analysis when presenting its strengths
- Having in mind an “escape” strategy for the policy maker—how to minimize risk if the results are undesirable
A good policy brief has to offer a “quick read for busy policymakers so they must be clear and relevant” J. Muia.
“Usually there is not time for deeper analysis when quick solutions are required. Know how to spend 80% of the time to get a across an idea with 20% for analysis”. H. Rotich
This post originally appeared on the GDNet blog.
This also points to the need for policymakers to be better trained in reading and digesting research. In my opinion it is not all about researchers presenting civil servants and politicians with an “easy read”. Researchers should be better integrated into the decision making process as policy advisors. If credibility is an issue, governments should reduce the distance between researchers, research institutions and themselves. Policymakers should initiate the dialogue and be more proactive in seeking-out research knowledge no matter how busy they are.