Evidence into policy

How does policy change happen?

By 12/02/2014

In September 2013, the Policy Engagement and Communications (PEC) Programme held an Inception Workshop in Bangkok, Thailand. The aim of the session was to share the existing expertise and engagement of think tanks with the ‘policy space’ (and stakeholders), surface some of the assumptions around influencing change and to identify the critical linkages between research and policy. The workshop identified commonalities and trends, as well as highlighting areas in which the PEC programme can add value to the think tanks’ policy engagement efforts and communications work.

What contributes to policy change?

There is no one size fits all approach, let alone a recipe book as to what factors will lead to policy change in a given context. However, for think tanks to play a role and be taken seriously by decision makers, their credibility and reputation is paramount.  A think tank’s ability to produce high quality and relevant, multi-method research is as critical as their ability to connect to multiple stakeholders and nurture relationships.

The workshop heard many examples of situations where think tanks had successfully used windows of opportunity to position their evidence and research to inform policy making. These windows, often linked to economic and social triggers,  can provide think tanks with an opportunity to communicate and popularise relevant research and evidence which otherwise falls on deaf ears, or is low on political agendas. Nevertheless, it was observed that there is a need also to work on and communicate issues that are not necessarily the dominant paradigm or part of a strong agenda.

Depending on their vision and mission, several think tanks actively engage in political processes by promoting or supporting citizen’s activism, supporting rights-based citizenship and demand led political agendas. In addition, the ability to present concrete solution streams and the presence of a pre-disposed political leader or leaders are critical factors driving change agendas. There was agreement that one shouldn’t underestimate that people, researchers and politicians alike, are guided by emotions and policy windows are often underpinned by a miture of political, evidence-based and personal momentum.

Equally, several think tanks highlighted that working with other development partners (donors, bi- and multilateral agencies) is an important pathway to share research and evidence. Due to power relationships (i.e. government dependencies on donor funding in certain contexts/sectors) donors or other development actors can play an important role in pushing for institutional, legislative and /or resource allocation changes.

Ultimately, there was an acknowledgement of the unpredictability of knowledge and research uptake and whether or not it leads to change. A certain route or an approach that works in one situation, sector or context might not work in another. No matter how strategic your communication and engagement activites are, change often happens when a mixture of factors (i.e. political, evidence-based and personal) come together to constitute a policy window or opportunity.

What is the relationship between policy and research?

At a most basic level the existence of policy gaps leads to research being undertaken. Examples shared during the workshop revealed that there are various drivers and origins for research generation. In many contexts think tanks respond to demand and client needs. However, some think tanks undertake research without an external push and identify areas for research which are informed by their mission, values or internally perceived need.

Clearly the relationship is of a long-term nature; it takes time to generate research as well as inform and be informed by policy processes and issues which in turn lead to new research being undertaken. Examples were shared which showed that building portfolios of evidence on an issue over time enables think tanks to provide insights and different angles – thus corroborating and triangulating research and building solid evidence cases.

Whether or not research objective and intellectual freedom is possible depends on the respective political and societal context. And whilst research often aims to be objective and non-partisan, several think tanks shared the view that this is not always the case and that in fact, within the political process one needs to ask the question as to whose research counts.

There was broad agreement that for research to lead to change, research outcomes and recommendations need to pass through a ‘political filter’. This filter or political process determines what is feasible to implement as a policy.

How do think tanks engage with policy makers to promote use of evidence in policy and practice?

The starting point for most think tanks is a clear analysis and articulation of why, what, how and who needs to be involved and engaged to achieve policy change. In articulating these parameters there is a recognition and mindfulness of the technical and behavioural change that is deemed to be needed to achieve higher level change agendas.

Critical to engaging with policy makers to promote use of evidence in policy and practice is to capture the attention of relevant stakeholders.  This is done through being ’present’ in external policy spaces and developing strong relationships both in formal and informal settings. Examples included fostering partnerships and collaboration, lobbying and networking.  It was deemed important to build relationships, understand political sensitivities, work with individuals within institutions and government, and engage in conversations rather than just present evidence and recommendations.

Some think tanks highlighted the importance of engaging with ‘downstream’ actors both directly and indirectly. This means think tanks share the research outcomes and findings with civil society organisations, pressure groups etc. who in turn take the issue up in political processes and spheres.

Several participants highlighted the importance of not only engaging with line ministries, but for example with ministries of Planning or Finance and with champions within these. Another strategy used is to ask for smaller changes which over time leads to bigger asks and incremental change.

A further approach to capturing attention is that think tanks produce policy briefs, engage with the media (including social media) and in sharing evidence they aim to use appropriate vernacular and be jargon-free. Participants agreed that new technologies enable them to reach those not reached previously. Downstream actors can in turn use the evidence to voice and demand changes through democratic and electoral channels. Some participants felt that engaging with pressure groups is more effective than engaging with the media.

How does policy engagement and communication add value to the work of think tanks?

Several think tanks clearly stated that policy engagement and communications does not only add value to their work but is a fundamental driver as they are seeking to affect behavioural and attitudinal changes of key decision makers. Thus, some think tanks perceive it to be a ‘duty’ to ensure that cutting edge knowledge affects change and is not only valued for knowledge’s sake.

At a more individual level participants shared the view that policy engagement and communication engagement is motivating and satisfying and enables them to contribute to positive changes and shaping the society they live in.

Policy engagement and communication is also seen to add value in that it helps focus, sharpen and create demand for further research, often leveraging funding for future work.  However, in some instances policy engagement was seen to create some risks, especially relating to the potential ‘watering-down’ and miscommunication of rigorous research.

Concluding thoughts and questions

Throughout the workshop, participants highlighted the importance of working towards achieving consensus policy through win-win scenarios. One of the fundamental ingredients for achieving consensus policy is engaging in a multiple stakeholder dialogue. To do that effectively, the ability to manage diversity and difference of opinion is critical as is the need for simple but factual (not simplistic) messaging.

The importance of context was also repeated. Be that the political context, the context of particular policy processes, stakeholders etc.  Methods of engagement must suit the context and be strategic.

A question that was left unanswered in the workshop is that of the importance of research/think tank neutrality and how to manage this in the policy arena. Some felt that independence and neutrality of funding is important (i.e. giving independence and neutrality over the driver for or origin of research), whilst others did not see it as essential. Government funding was seen as both an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity is that it allows think tanks to bring about change from within. The challenge is largely in that it is hard to maintain neutrality and credibility with other stakeholder groups. This led to a question being raised (but left unanswered): Does financial independence allow think tanks not to take a non-neutral postion and advocate for certain solutions?

There was a broad consensus that whilst good research is critical it is not sufficient to achieve policy change. One of the underlying factors is the unpredictability of when research uptake happens. One participant observed, “I Don’t think you ever know the route to a policy maker”.  Opportunism, timing and determination are important ingredients to success in the research to policy space.


This post has been produced as part of the Think Tank Initiative’s Policy Engagement and Communications (PEC) programme. However,  these are the authors personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of TTI or the PEC programme. You can find all ongoing outputs related to this project via the PEC mini-site on Research to Action. To get updates from the PEC programme and be part of the discussion sign-up to our RSS or email updates. You can also follow our progress via Twitter using the following hashtag #ttipec

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