Evidence into policy

Evidence-based policy making from both sides of the coin

By 27/11/2013

Imagine a room filled with some very intellectual researchers, armed with compelling statistics, figures, charts and recommendations, mixed together with a few very practical policy practitioners and some high level government officials seeking to explain the policy making process. This is just what happened at a Policy Dialogue event, held in Jakarta, and hosted by the ‘Strengthening Institutions to Improve Policy Expenditure Monitoring (PEM)’ project.

Honest dialogue from both sides

What could have potentially been an afternoon of people speaking on two polar ends of the spectrum turned into a rather fascinating discussion on the complexities and nuances of evidence based policy making. In the left corner, armed with evidence and statistics stands the esteemed researcher… in the right corner, carrying political demands, social pressures, practical solutions and the power to make social change, stands our esteemed policy maker.  Both contenders step into the centre of the ring, ready to swing in defence of their position but to our surprise what results is some very honest dialogue from both sides of the evidence based policy making coin.

While policy makers readily accept the value of evidence in the policy making process, there were some complexities to the evidence to policy interface that were noted.

In a candid interview with Mr. G. Kumar Naik, (Principal Secretary, Primary and Secondary Education, Government of Karnataka, India) he revealed that sometimes the problem is not that the government is opposed to evidence in policy making. Policy makers are starting to realise that without evidence we will all perish. However, all researchers believe that the research they have done is “the seed of an idea whose time has come”. While this may be true for some, it can’t be true for all.

There is considerable noise in the policy making arena with an endless stream of researchers, civil society organisations and other stakeholders demanding to be heard and sometimes these opinions are conflicting. This makes the role of the policy maker somewhat difficult. As Mr. G. Kumar Naik put it, “we need to understand that there are limited recommendations an administration can utilise at any given point. Patience is needed.” Therefore it is necessary for researchers to be patient and give practical advice that can easily turned into actions.

3 principles that make for successful policy engagement

According to him there are 3 principles that make for successful policy engagement:

         1. Recommendations must be actionable and practical

The more resources a government has the more demand there is for these resources therefore present a solid case that has actionable and practical recommendations.

           2.  Mutual appreciation for the other’s work.

Understand that researchers and policymakers each have a role and responsibility, but the way that they function is very different. Researchers work methodically, have time on their side and have the ability to point to evidence scrutinized truths. However, the policy maker does not have the same advantages. They do however have grassroot wisdom and can make a quick assessment of what is feasible and what is not.

           3. Understand the dynamics of policymaking.

Programs are usually taken up as a response to popular demand but when it appears there is limited utility for this program it is very difficult for governments to withdraw the program for various political and practical reasons. Therefore, researchers should try and make recommendations within the existing framework, to improve current programs (where possible) as they are more likely to gain traction.

Minister Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana (State Minister for Ministry of National Development Planning) provided some useful advice to researchers, being from an academic background herself. She noted that not all research findings are relevant or yield the desired outcomes; however, there is a need for researchers to recognise that there is more value to research than just methodology. If you are truly to undertake policy relevant research then you have to move outside of academic circles and engage with other groups of individuals.

Although some of these assertions seem obvious, being aware of the challenges to policy makers and their expectations of the evidence you provide them may go a long way to address some of the political dimensions of evidence based policy making.

In the second part of this blog, I will reflect on the considerations that emerged from a researcher’s point of view in the hopes of finding some concrete advice to facilitate the process of evidence based policy making.


If you would like find out more about how the ‘Strengthening Institutions to Improve Public Expenditure Accountability’ project developed policy options and created a tailored approach to research communication visit the  ‘Strengthening Institutions’ mini-site. You can also stay up to date via RSS.