Building a strategy

Leveraging policy influence: Lessons from the GDN PEM global research initiative

By 20/11/2013

The ‘Strengthening Institutions to Improve Public Expenditure Accountability’ (GDN PEM) research initiative challenged all project partners to reflect upon a series of core questions around how to leverage research into policy and practice. This article introduces these questions and why they are important. To keep track of how the project partners responded, keep an eye on the GDN dialogue space on R2A.

The need to understand core influencing approaches

The world of think tanks and research organizations is one that is not always accessible by the general public. But make no mistake, the public sees, consumes critiques and disseminates content generated by such organizations. Yet, in many cases the public has very little insight how such content is produced and why certain stories are publicized.

That the public does not know about how the “sausage is made” is perhaps not surprising; what may be more surprising is that there are untapped sources of knowledge across research organizations. I would contend that there are lessons that can be shared among think tanks that could benefit the research community as a whole. By sharing best practices and strategies, these organizations could produce more engaging content and reach new audiences.

The production of better content is not necessarily zero sum; better outreach and internal practices can serve to stimulate the demand for rigorous, practical research more broadly, thus benefiting all research organizations. Furthermore, while the levers for influencing policy actors differ across organizations and are highly context-specific, there are cross-cutting core practices from which all organizations could profit.

Leveraging policy influence: Reflection from a global project

The ‘Strengthening Institutions to Improve Public Expenditure Accountability’ (GDN PEM) initiative tasked individuals involved in the project to reflect upon levers of policy influence.  These reflections are organized around a set of questions (below) that were posed to them. Several of the organizations involved in the project answered the call – in the process providing a series of valuable insights into how to create rigorous, practical research that can influence the public and policymakers alike.

Our hope is that these reflections can serve to initiate dialogue across think tanks that have faced common challenges and developed strategies for overcoming these challenges.  This discussion should be a living, breathing one – and one that benefits the research community, the public and policymakers alike.

A series of challenging questions for project partners

1. How to effectively involve and engage citizens in the work of think tanks?

Ordinary citizens sometimes feel very removed from the world of think tanks, and do not fully understand the work and research put forward by these organizations. This may lead to a lack of involvement in policy processes and weak knowledge of pressing policy issues. Given this context, how have you involved ordinary citizens in your work? What are effective tools in reaching out to citizens in an approachable manner? How can you solicit regular input and feedback on your work from a mix of demographics?

2. How to get citizens excited about the budgetary process?

The impact of budgetary decisions are profound, and can felt by citizens on a daily basis. Yet, a lack of understanding and exposure to complex budgeting processes can dampen the ability of citizens to actively follow and feed into budgetary decision processes. Given this challenge, what tools or methods have you used to cultivate public interest in the budgeting process?   How have you made it easier for citizens to both access budgetary information and advocate for certain allocation decisions?

3. How to effectively disseminate research in a variety of settings?

This question explores the various tools and mechanisms used to showcase and publicize research in a mix of different settings. For instance, this may include workshops, regional conferences, and meetings with policymakers and other stakeholders. From your experience, what are particularly effective dissemination formats that work best in specific situations? What are the steps required in translating your research into these different formats?

4. How to translate complicated research into an accessible format for public consumption?

The work of think tanks is not always immediately accessible by non-experts. The policy issues that think tanks grapple with are often ridden with nuances and complexities; as such, the clear transmission of complicated research presents an enormous challenge.  In light of this challenge, how have you translated complicated research into a format that is easier to digest for a wider audience? How have you tailored messages to a non-research oriented audience?

 5. How to gain the attention of policy and decision makers in order to share your research?

Creating strong research and policy recommendations is sometimes not enough, and it is equally important to develop effective research communication strategies to influence and engage decision makers. Strong communication strategies that highlights research in a targeted manner to appropriate policymakers are crucial, and require collaboration between both researchers and communications staff. What are practices and tools that you use to communicate your research to decision makers? What are the strategies that have been particularly effective?


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.

3 Responses to Leveraging policy influence: Lessons from the GDN PEM global research initiative

  1. Andrew Clappison says:

    Hi Mark, It’s great to see the GDN PEM project reflecting on these issues, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how the project partners respond to some of the questions that you pose. It makes me think, we could learn so much if other research projects took GDN PEM’s lead and reflected on challenges and experiences around policy leverage in the same way. Keep up the good work! Andrew

  2. Courtney Tolmie says:

    This is great Mark! Cannot wait to see how think tanks are answering these tough questions!

  3. Diana Coates says:

    The African universities in the DRUSSA programme stepped up to the challenge of writing about research evidence in plain language. See their PLATFORM2013 articles – highlighting research with potential for development policy impact.